Monthly Archives: December 2014

Be Like Esau

A week and a half ago, I ended Shabbat as I always do, by checking the news and seeing what has happened in the world over the past twenty-four hours. It was then that I read about the arson attack at the Hand-in-Hand school in Jerusalem. A preschool classroom in this school, a school overseen be Arab and Jewish principals, a school where hundreds of Arab and Jewish students learn together from Pre-Kindergarten until 12th grade, was engulfed in flames, likely set on fire by Jewish extremists in a so called “price tag” attack. In addition to the arson attack, graffiti has regularly been found on the walls, which read: Death to Arabs, and You can’t coexist with cancer. Such attacks are nationalistically motivated hate crimes, and this was likely in response to the many terrorist attacks that have occurred throughout the past several weeks, most notably the butchering of worshippers in a synagogue in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof.

Yet, even more notably, was the response of the students. On Sunday, the day after the attack, Arab and Jewish students gathered in the park across from the school. Supporting the school’s motto of “We refuse to be enemies,” one student said: “This is a bad thing, but it shows us how important this school – and the idea behind it – is”. “We want to prove that Arabs and Jews can live together in Israel,” he said. “We are all human and need to respect each other.” No retaliation. Only love.

I am reminded of this summer when Eyal, Naftali, and Gil’ad were kidnapped as they hitchhiked home from their West Bank Yeshiva and were brutally murdered and burned to a crisp. Rachel Fraenkel, the mourning mother of Naftali Fraenkel, made a public statement when hearing of the revenge killing of Muhammad Abu Khdeir by Jewish extremists. “Even in the abyss of mourning,” she said, “it is difficult to describe how distressed we are by the outrage committed in Jersualem.” She denounced such a revenge killing and even visited Abu Khdeir’s mother to offer condolences.

To mourn the loss of a child. To mourn the destruction of a school. And still, to dream of a better future, and to not hold a grudge. To not want revenge and only to want peace. That is powerful. That is what we all strive for and who we strive to be. We cannot resort to “price tag” racist retaliation. We cannot resort to the belief that you harmed me so I must harm you. We are better than that. We must be better than that.

Last Shabbat, we read Parashat Vayishlach. In this Torah portion, we find Jacob journeying to reunite with his brother Esau. Jacob attempts to buy forgiveness, as we see in Gen. 32:6:

I have acquired cattle, donkeys, sheep, servants, and I send this message to you in hopes of gaining your favor.

Jacob hoped that if he gave Esau enough gifts, all would be forgotten – the lopsided birthright for soup exchange and the stolen blessing from their father. When Jacob heard instead that Esau was coming to meet him, he was fearful that Esau would attack him.

Finally, after sending his family ahead, after wrestling with an angel, he saw Esau coming towards him, accompanied by 400 men. Jacob was scared. And Esau came running towards him, but not to attack. As we read in Genesis 33:4:

And Esau ran to greet him and embraced him, hugged him, fell on his neck, and kissed him and wept.

In a way, as if Esau was letting go as well, letting go of the grief, letting go of the grudge, he leaned on his brother Jacob, fell on his neck, and just began wailing. He was emotionally exhausted from hating him, from being so angry with him and realizing that this got him nowhere. Esau let it go. And not only was Jacob better off as a result. Esau was better off as well.

We focus on Jacob and Esau and how our tradition made Jacob the hero and Esau the scapegoat. Yet, I want to take it one step further. We can’t just say that Esau was innocent and got a bad rap. We must actually strive to be like Esau. We must be more like Esau. As difficult as repentance is, it’s easy to ask for forgiveness once we realize that we have done wrong. It is much harder to have been wronged and victimized and still be willing to forgive.

We must be brave and courageous enough to let it go and forgive. We must always be willing to hug and embrace someone and move on. May we be strong enough to forgive. May we be strong enough to be like Esau.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Every Breath of Life

The final words of Psalm 150, and thus, the entire Book of Psalms are:

Kol HaNeshamah Tehallelyah, Hallelujah.

With every breath of life, you shall praise the Divine. Hallelujah!

The Book of Psalms concludes with this charge, but this verse also serves as a reminder that every breath of life, every time we breathe, we need to be reminded of God’s presence, God’s majesty, and the everyday miracles of life. When we stop breathing, when someone takes that life away from us, then God’s presence fades as we fade away. And taking that life away, stopping that breathing, is a chillul Hashem, not just the transgression of taking another life, be it intentional or accidental but truly a desecration of God.

It is not a coincidence that in Hebrew, the words for breath and soul (neshama) are the same. To cause someone to stop breathing does not only kill them, but it destroys their soul. As it says in the Book of Job, “Remember, all life is but a breath.”

The haunting last words of Eric Garner linger:

I can’t breathe.

And the reality of a police officer killing another — even if it was accidental — by using unnecessary force (not to mention a chokehold that the NYPD does not permit) when Garner was accused of simply a petty crime (selling untaxed cigarettes) is a troubling reality that cannot continue.

The voices for racial equality were outraged by the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson by the Ferguson Grand Jury. The officer killed an unarmed black teenager and was not indicted. Yet, there were conflicting witness accounts and forensic analysis that suggested Michael Brown may have had a physical altercation with the officer. There was no video to prove what happened. If only there was video.

Yet, it seems that video doesn’t matter. When Eric Garner was killed by a police officer in Staten Island on July 17, 2014, an eyewitness videoed the entire altercation. Still no indictment. The actions by these officers, a result of broken windows theory which targets minorities, and specifically black men, are unacceptable. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was an attempt by social media users to participate in hashtag activism. But activism cannot be limited to Twitter and Facebook.

In Mesechet Yevamot 87b, the Talmud teaches that silence equals consent. Being silent in the face of such brutality is accepting it as norm. Our responsibility then as a Jewish community and our obligation is to be speaking out for Eric Garner, who can no longer speak for himself. The Jewish community has dealt with oppression and discrimination in our history. Yet, we also acknowledge that we are privileged. I am white. I am male. I am straight. I am not discriminated against in many parts of the country, or even in my own backyard, in the way others are. All the more so, it is my responsibility, and it is our responsibility, to stand up for those who are being discriminated against. It is our responsibility to speak up for justice.

RabbisProtestI read tonight that there was a peaceful action and protest tonight among Manhattan’s Upper West Side Jewish community, organized by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. Rabbis within the peaceful protest were arrested this evening as well. I am proud that New York’s Jewish community has not remained silent. I am proud that the community understands that #BlackLivesMatter.

My hope and prayer is that the Jewish community as a whole, and all communities, will understand the sanctity of each life as well. I pray that we will all come to understand that we are all responsible for one another. We are all responsible to protect each other. We are our brothers’ keepers.

Let us take deep breaths and breathe new life into a society that desperately needs change, to breathe new life into a justice system suffering from systematic racism. We need to breathe. Let us recognize that every breath, every soul is precious. And let us not remain silent, for all those who were unjustly taken from this world.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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