Monthly Archives: June 2016

A Vow of #Enough

This article was originally published on June 21, 2016, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

SOMAOrlandoVigilWe came together as community, standing side-by-side: interfaith clergy and elected officials, police officers and members of the rescue squad, representatives of North Jersey Pride and Moms Demand Action, engaged and concerned members of our towns. Last week, we came together on Sloan Street, at the South Orange Train Station, for a vigil remembering the victims of the horrendous attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, in which 49 members of the LGBTQ community where murdered, and another 53 were injured. News media has called this the largest mass shooting in our country’s history. So we came together.

We came together to cry and to mourn. We came together to lean on each other’s CBEatSOMAOrlandoVigilshoulders. We came together to stand with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. And we came together to say “enough.” We came together hoping for a better world – believing that the diversity of our two towns of South Orange and Maplewood and our commitment to building a safe and caring community will spread to the rest of the country and the world.

Sitting in synagogue this past Friday night, I was reflecting on the power of coming together as community as chills ran down my spine. I quickly realized that Friday night, June 17th, was the one-year anniversary of the tragic mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. And one year ago, this past Shabbat, we had come together, just as we did last week, standing on Sloan Street, gathering at the South Orange train station.

A year ago, we came together in the same way: clergy and elected officials, law enforcement officers and community members, mourning and saying “enough.” And yet, a year later, we continue to gather on Sloan Street. We continue to come together to mourn. A year later, our country still refuses to deal with our obsession with guns and our complacency that allows for the murder of too many innocent lives with the simple twitch of an index finger. A year later, our elected officials cowardly refuse to act, refuse to pass legislative changes to makes us safer, refuse to do anything besides offering “thoughts and prayers.” A year later, and hate continues to repeat itself. History continues to repeat itself.

SOMAOrlandoVigilRememberThis past Shabbat, as we mourned the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub attacked in Orlando and observed the yahrtzeit of the nine victims of the Emanuel AME Church attack in Charleston, we read Parashat Naso. In the Torah portion, we read the priestly benediction, the blessing that Aaron the High Priest recites to the Israelites, the blessing that parents recite to children on Shabbat, the blessing recited to newborns at a bris and simchat bat, the blessing recited as we celebrate lovers underneath a chuppah, and the blessing we give to b’nai mitzvah from the bimah.

Yevareicha Adonai Viyishmereicha. Yair Adonai Panav Elecha Vichuneka. Yisa Adonai Panav Elecha Veyasem Lecha Shalom. May God bless you and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May God’s face and presence lift you up and grant you peace. Amen.

We say this blessing at every life stage, at every seminal moment. We talk about Peace. We pray. I am tired of just praying. I am tired of praying for peace and seeing mass shooting after mass shooting. I am tired of praying for peace after hate of another — because of someone’s sexual orientation, race, religion, gender identity, or ethnicity — causes loss of life. I am tired of praying for peace while our children die, while our lovers die, while this world slowly dies. I am tired of those who are supposed to act, who are meant to represent us and pass laws to keep us safe, and only pray. They offer their thoughts and prayers following tragedy and refuse to act.

So we must act. First, we must stand with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and ensure them that our sanctuaries and sacred spaces are their safe havens as well. When a shooter attacked a gay bar and nightclub, a place that had historically been a sanctuary and safe space for the LGBTQ community, we must declare that our sanctuaries are sanctuaries for all — that our sanctuaries celebrate the sanctity of all.

But acting also means forcing our elected officials to act. Moms Demand Action commends those who participated in the Senate filibuster last week, not to pass a law, but just to get a simple vote for common sense legislation. And yet, we saw in the Senate this week, a refusal to act. Those who were quick to offer thoughts and prayers were even quicker to vote against legislation that would curb gun violence in this country. But we keep saying the words of the priestly benediction: Vayasem Lecha Shalom, may God grant you peace. As we say these words, we must make them reality. Get involved in our local chapter of South Orange-Maplewood chapter of Moms Demand Action or Moms Demand Action nationally. Don’t just pray. Do something. That is what God expects of us.

We pray for peace, as if we are waiting for God to act, but Jewish tradition teaches that God is crying as we cry. God is waiting for us to act. In the midrash, Lamentations Rabbah, God cries out. The book of Lamentations is a text that speaks of widows crying and infants lying lifeless in the street. Trying to comprehend the violence, hate, and destruction of the text, God bemoans:

Woe is Me for My house, My children — where are you? My priests, where are you? Those who love Me, where are you?

God cannot understand why we — those who were created in God’s divine image — refuse to act. I also can’t understand this. We sit and pray for God to grant us peace. Yet, the midrash teaches that God sits and waits for us to act. And instead of acting, we just continue to gather on Sloan Street, year after year, mass shooting after mass shooting, While I love this example of communal unity, I’m tired of waiting for the next tragedy to gather. I am tired of simply gathering and not acting. We must make a vow of #Enough!

Parashat Naso also focuses on the Nazarite vow. This odd vow concerns Nazarites refraining from drinking wine, from cutting their hair or trimming their beards, and from coming into contact with the dead. These prohibitions were not required by Jewish law. Still, they placed these seemingly additional burdens upon themselves by adding these prohibitions. The Torah explains that the Nazarites sought a state of spiritual purity. They felt that these prohibitions would lead them to be spiritually pure, to build a society that was spiritually pure. They added rules, changed teachings, and allowed for law to evolve — all in order to create a society, and a life, that was pure, to build a world that was pure as well. We shouldn’t think of the Nazarites as religious zealots who put unnecessary burdens upon themselves. The Nazarites understood that the legal system was not enough to make the necessary changes that they sought, to make this a truly sacred place, and to build the world God expects us to build. They need more laws, more prohibitions to build a safer, and more sacred, world.

Maybe we need our own pseudo Nazarite vow — we need to act. We need a vow of ENOUGH. We need to say that the laws we currently have are not enough to build a spiritually pure society, a society that God expects of us, a world where we — and our children — are safe. And we must make a vow to evolve the law, to take on further restrictions, just as the Nazarites did, to ensure that hate doesn’t turn to violence, that the life isn’t shattered by easily attainable assault rifles. We must make a vow of ENOUGH. Enough thoughts and prayers. Enough praying for peace and waiting for God to act.

We must pray, and we must act. We must hold our elected officials accountable for their refusal to act. We must ensure work to build a spiritually pure society, a safe society, a Garden of Eden that God set out to build. Only then will we be able to not just pray for peace, but make peace a reality. Let us be renewed in our faith as we continue to pray for peace, and let us be courageous enough to act as well. And let’s stop having to meet like this on Sloan Street, continuing to mourn far too many lives lost. #ENOUGH.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Don’t Throw Away Your Shot, Shot

If you weren’t at synagogue over the festival of Shavuot, then you missed me rapping the lyrics of Alexander Hamilton, from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton. Hamilton has become so popular that it is impossible to get a ticket. Some of you have been lucky enough to see it on stage. The rest of us are forced to instead listen to it over and over on Spotify, watching the occasional YouTube video of a performance.

Hamilton was the sensation of the Tony’s awards this past weekend. They were nominated for a record 16 Tony’s and walked away with 11 wins. And yet, Miranda got the idea for this groundbreaking musical because at an airport bookstore. He picked up the 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow to read while on vacation. That is not a light read. But he said that as he read it, he couldn’t help but realize how the life of Hamilton embodies hip hop. Hamilton was born a penniless orphan in St. Croix, what was then called an illegitimate birth, and become George Washington’s righthand man. He became treasury secretary and “caught beef with every other founding father.”  After all, it is a remarkable story. We would think it is fiction if we didn’t read of it in our history books.

HamiltonOn Shavuot, we read of a woman whose life embodies “hip hop” just as much as Hamilton’s:  Ruth. Yes. Ruth the Moabite. My name is Ruth the Moabite. And there are a million things I haven’t done. Just you wait. Just you wait.

The rabbis offer many interpretations about why we read the book of Ruth on Shavuot.  Many identify Ruth as the first convert to Judaism. Her statement to Naomi of “Wherever you go I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people. And your God shall be my God” is identified as an affirmation of faith. Since Shavuot is when we receive the Torah, when we celebration revelation at Sinai, this affirmation of faith is an affirmation of Torah, an affirmation of revelation. Ruth is choosing to stand at the foot of Sinai. Additionally, we read about Ruth on Shavuot, because Shavuot marks the wheat harvest in the land of Israel. In the book of Ruth, Ruth who is hungry, along with her mother-in-law Naomi, is sent out to glean with the other women of Boaz’s field. So much of the book focuses on her cleaning of the wheat and barley, and this is the holiday of the wheat harvest. That is certainly appropriate.

But the book of Ruth is about something greater, something deeper. This book is Tony Award worthy.

Ruth marries into Naomi’s family, a Moabite woman marrying an outsider, only to have her father-in-law die, quickly followed by the deaths of her husband and brother-in-law. As much as her mother-in-law tries to get her to leave, she stays. She promises to remain with Naomi. They travel to Bethelem and are poor, homeless, and hungry, so she is forced to glean the fields. She comes across Boaz and She waits for him to have his fill – to eat a lot and drink a lot – and then ends up seducing him. Eventually, they marry. The end of the book though, having nothing to do with the narrative itself, is key:

There is a son to be born to Naomi, meaning born to Ruth: And they called him Oved, the father of Jesse, the father of David.

The book of Ruth ends declaring that this outsider who experienced nothing but death, who followed her mother-in-law to an unknown place, who was poor and homeless, who slept around in order to find favor and get food, is the great grandmother of David. Ruth is the great grandmother of the great King of Israel, and as tradition teaches, is responsible for the lineage of the Messiah. Essentially, despite all that she had been through, her actions will lead to messianic redemption.

The book of Ruth teaches us despite the challenges of one’s life, anything is possible. No matter the bumps one experiences in the road, you have great influence and the ability to impact and change society and the world – just as Ruth did for Jewish history and Hamilton did for American history. We are inspired by each that despite the tragedies of the past, the world will know your name.

May we find comfort and inspiration knowing that regardless of whatever challenges we face, there is still so much opportunity to change the world.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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