Monthly Archives: January 2017

Standing Up to Hardened Hearts

This article was originally published on January 30th, 2017, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

I spent last Sunday with the new Syrian family that our community helped resettle in New Jersey. Along with my rabbinic colleagues, we spent time with the family that Congregation Beth El, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, and Oheb Shalom Congregation helped to resettle. The family has asked that we do not use their names out of fear of retribution to family members still in Syria. During our conversation together, it was clear how grateful they were to be here, and how much emotional baggage they carried with them. They came with just a few suitcases. Our community graciously and lovingly donated clothing, houseware, and furniture to furnish their new home that we found for them. But all they brought with them, all they had left of their lives, was a few suitcases. Their children are beginning school in the local elementary and high school in the coming days and their oldest child is committed to being fluent in English as quickly as possible so that she could enroll in a university soon.

They arrived at Newark International Airport days before President Trump’s inauguration, and days later, I can’t help but think how lucky they are that they arrived when they did. If they were delayed and arrived any later, they wouldn’t have been allowed in this country, a consequence of the President’s discriminatory executive order that temporarily bans citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, temporarily freezes the US refugee program entirely, and bans all Syrian refugees from entering the United States going forward.

As a rabbi, a Jew, and a human being, this xenophobic policy is deeply troubling to me. In June 1939 the St. Louis was turned away and not allowed to anchor in the United States, out of fear that the German Jews on board were actually Nazi spies.More than a quarter of those passengers died in the Holocaust. Statistics from 1938 show that the vast majority of Americans weren’t willing to allow German or Austrian refugees into the country. On January 27th, we observed International Holocaust Remembrance Day and made the commitment of ‘Never Again.’ The promise of ‘Never Again’ means that never again will be turn away refugees, sending them off to be slaughtered. Never again will we be apathetic towards millions who are just seeking safety under God’s sheltering presence. And yet, we find ourselves at this crossroads, where the government has seemed to ignore this commitment of ‘Never Again,’ specifically singling out refugees because of their ethnicity and faith.

My congregation joined the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees a year and a half ago and joined HIAS’ list of Welcoming Congregations this past spring. We, along with the other synagogues in the area, joined withChurch World Service to resettle refugees because we were determined to not just talk the talk – to not just sign on to a statement or add our names to a petition – but to walk the walk. And now in light of this discriminatory executive action, we are left asking ourselves: What do we do now? Where do we go from here? Who do we want to be?

mattgewirtzjesseolitzky

Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz & Rabbi Jesse Olitzky at Newark International Airport

On Saturday night, I joined hundreds at Newark International Airport, among them congregants and rabbinic colleagues, to protest these discriminatory executive orders and demand that refugees and immigrants be allowed to enter this country. I cannot be silent. I refuse to be silent. We must continue to take action, even when we feel hopeless – and especially when we feel hopeless – to fight for what we believe is right.

 

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Va’era, a continuation of the exodus narrative, in which God commands Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand that the Israelites be freed. God begins with a promise, looking into the future, focusing on the destination of the journey ahead:

I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you for the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm… (Ex. 6:5-6).

This initial promise sounds pretty good. Those who have suffered will be given a new opportunity to begin again. Yet, as God explains to Moses that he will be the leader of the Israelites, and his brother Aaron will be his voice, the Lord threw a wrench into this supposed promise:

You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. (Ex. 7:2-3).

This always baffled me. Why would an Omnipotent God intentionally harden Pharaoh’s heart? Why wouldn’t God just free the Israelites at that moment? One would think that after finally hearing their cries of four hundred years of servitude, God would immediately take them out of slavery. The rabbis are equally concerned with this and try to rationalize Pharaoh’s hardened heart.

Midrash Lekach Tov blames the Israelites, suggesting that after being enslaved for so long, they weren’t ready to be free. They needed to witness God’s miracles to understand that freedom was actually a possibility for them. Rashi teaches that at that moment, if Pharaoh was to repent, it would be inauthentic. He couldn’t have experienced wholehearted teshuvah, so his heart was hardened. The midrash in Exodus Rabbah suggests that Pharaoh needed to be punished for his actions. Pharaoh needed to suffer from these plagues as a revenge of sorts. But none of this explains why God preemptively warns Moses that Pharaoh’s heart would be hardened. Why does God reveal the plot twist before it even happens? Because ultimately, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was not about Pharaoh; it was about Moses.

Moses may have been a hesitant leader due to his fear of speaking in public, his “uncircumcised lips,” but his belief in helping the Israelites was never in doubt. He risked his life of privilege in Pharaoh’s palace to prevent a taskmaster from beating a slave! This was a cause that he cared about from an early age. But what would happen when he got to that first road block? What would happen when the door was slammed in his face? Would he return to Midian as a shepherd and ignore the hardships of the Hebrews? Or would he continue to bang on Pharaoh’s door, until he banged the door down, demanding ‘Let My People Go’?

God wanted to make sure that Moses was in this for the long haul, because if he cared enough about this cause, then he needed to be in it for the long haul. It would’ve been easy to get frustrated, pack up, and go home. The path to justice isn’t straight, but that doesn’t mean that we stop pursuing it. Moses knew that time and time again he would demand the Israelites’ freedom and would be turned away, but he kept coming back. He refused to give up. He knew what he stood for was right and wasn’t going to let the hardened heart of an authoritarian get in his way.

So now, at this point in history, we ask ourselves where do we go from here? Who do we want to be? We are the descendants of refugees who came to this country seeking safe haven. Many of us are refugees ourselves. We are a people who are taught to welcome the stranger, a commandment found in the Torah more times than any other commandment. So who do we want to be? After signing on to statements and petitions and even resettling refugees, do we move on in the face of bigoted policies? Do we continue to complain to our friends in our own echo chambers, posting on social media to those who already share our views? Do we give up and return to Midian, defeated with our heads hanging in shame? Or do we do what Moses did, keep banging on Pharaoh’s door, fighting for what is right?

Who do we want to be?

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Fast, Pray, March

This weekend is a weekend of transition for our country. For some, it is filled with hope. For many, it is filled with fear. As I have said before, I hope and pray that the new administration lives up to the ideals of this country and of our faith. However, the fear that many feel comes from the hateful rhetoric of the campaign and the election. Many who voted for Mr. Trump voted for change, jobs, and the economy. I understand and acknowledge that. But I also know that this campaign and election condoned misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and bigotry. Many who fear this new administration coming to power do so because we fear that we will lose our healthcare, we fear that our loved ones will be deported, we fear that our marriages that we fought to be recognized will be questioned, we fear that there will be regression in the fight for racial justice, and we fear that others will try to legislate our bodies and our reproductive rights. At this time of transition, a time filled with hope for some, but fear for so many, we are taught to act. Our tradition teaches that when we face an unknown future, we act.

On Friday, the day of the Presidential Inauguration, I will be participating in a local grassroots event, the Inauguration of the Spirit of Goodwill. This event will focus on how the shared message of our faiths call on us to welcome the stranger, to work towards justice, and to love kindness. I encourage you to join me. I will also be joining many rabbinic colleagues on Friday in an Inauguration Fast. Private fasts used to be popular and commonplace and are mentioned throughout rabbinic literature. Jewish Law even encourages one to fast as an active way to atone for guilt or during a time of trouble to call on God’s mercy. Communal fasts were just as common when Jewish communities were dealing with events that caused great distress and threats to one’s safety. My rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Burt Visotzky, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, spoke of the need to have an Inauguration Fast:

There’s a whole tractate (section) of the Talmud that assumes that if there’s been a drought we need to look to our own piety … We are in a drought. We are hungry to live in a society that holds the ideals of our founding fathers dear.

If you are of able mind and body, and look to turn towards God as we face this unknown future, I encourage you to consider joining me in this sunrise-to-sunset fast.

feet-marchingMany have asked me where I will be this Shabbat. I will be where I am every Shabbat, with my community. I will be with our congregation, leading services and learning Torah together. We will have a full schedule of services for adults, preschoolers, and elementary school-aged children. I encourage you to join us to be with community this Shabbat. But I will also not be surprised or disappointed if I see many seats and pews that are empty, with many in our community spending Shabbat at marches in Washington DC, Manhattan, and Trenton. As I have mentioned many times, when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Dr. King and other civil rights leaders in Selma, Alabama, he answered the question of why he marched by explaining that he was praying with his feet. I know that no matter where you find yourself this Shabbat, be it at Congregation Beth El, Washington DC, New York City, or Trenton, you will be praying.

As our country begins a new chapter, I echo the words of my colleague, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz:

O God and God of our Ancestors, help us with our struggle. We yearn for the success of the American government, to fulfill its righteous mandate to protect its citizens from threats internal and foreign, to fortify the bonds between liberty and justice, to ordain fair treatment under the law, and to expand welfare to all those within its capacity.

We pray that the vision of the prophets—the redemptive power of justice; relief for the poor, welcome for the marginal, protection for the oppressed, care for the sick—and the vision of the Constitution of a more perfect union be brought about.

May this vision become a reality and may it happen speedily in our day. And may we continue to fast, to march, to pray, and to act, until it is so. Amen.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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A Living Legacy

I’ve been thinking a lot about legacy this weekend. This past Shabbat, we concluded the book of Genesis by reading Parashat Vayechi. Two of the main characters of the book of Genesis, Jacob and Joseph, die. Jacob, our patriarch and our namesake as a people, spends much of the end of the book on his deathbed offering his last words to his children. One would expect words of blessing and love, an ethical will of sorts, from their father, but in many cases, Jacob did anything but bless his sons. He did not to intend punish them or yell at them. Rather, Jacob feared that as a father, as a leader, he wouldn’t be there to guide his children anymore. He wouldn’t be able to teach them right from wrong. It was a hard enough challenge when he was alive. He worried even more about their paths in life when he is gone. He told his oldest, Reuben, that he is unstable as water and shall not excel (Gen. 49:4). He told his sons Simeon and Levi that their weapons are tools of lawlessness and that his soul wouldn’t come into their council (Gen. 49:5-6).These aren’t exactly the blessings you want from your father when he is on his death bed. But there is a deep sense of fear by Jacob that all that he taught his children, the ethics and values that he himself learned as an adult after he changed his ways, would be forgotten. Jacob feared that without his leadership and guidance, his children would not continue on the trajectory that they were on.  

The portion concludes with the death of Jacob’s favored son, Joseph. Unlike his father, Joseph does not offer final blessings. Instead, he simply asked all to make a promise that in the end, when the Children of Israel left Egypt, they wouldn’t leave Joseph behind. Joseph was embalmed and mummified, as was the custom of ancient Egypt, and made his brothers promise that they would literally take his bones with him when they set out for the promised land. Joseph was worried about being left behind, figuratively and literally. Joseph was worried about being forgotten.

The haftarah reading for Parashat Vayechi, finds King David on his deathbed, also sharing last words with his loved ones. Unlike Jacob or Joseph, David is much more blunt with his words. He tells Solomon to “keep charge of God, walk in God’s ways, and follow the ethics, values, and laws of the Lord” (I King 1:3). David expected his son to follow on his path and made sure that he knew it. 

Jacob worried that all he believed in would fall by the wayside without him leading the way, Joseph wanted to live on and continue on life’s journey after he died in hopes that he could continue to impact the world in death just as he did in life, and David made sure to remind his children the importance of walking in his path and in his footsteps. On the day when our nation remembers the life of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I can’t help but think of Dr. King’s legacy as well. What were the last words he would’ve said, if he was on his deathbed? In a way, we already have that answer. 

Dr. King received daily death threats and knew that any day could be his last. That did not stop him from preaching God’s word and striving to finish building the world that the Almighty set out to create; that did not stop him from working towards a more just society. The last public speech he gave, on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, focused on the thoughts he wanted to leave this world. Legend has it that Dr. King almost didn’t share these words at the Mason Temple to Memphis Sanitation Workers. He was under the weather, but at the crowds urging, he spoke anyway. He got up there and said: 

[I]f I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?”… “Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy. Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding… And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today…

King ended his speech not knowing what would happen in his life, but said:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the next day by James Earl Ray as he stood on the balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Hotel.

He too wished that he could see his work – and the work of justice – come to fruition. He too was hoping to see the world that he dreamed off become a reality. But he knew that whether we was killed that very next day or died in his sleep at the ripe old age of 120, he wouldn’t be able to see the fruits of his labor. But he still made a promise to work at it, to fight for justice, even if he didn’t experience justice. He essentially was explaining the teaching of Rabbi Tarfon: one is not obligated to finish the task, but one is not free to ignore it either (Pirkei Avot 2:21). King knew that his dreams wouldn’t be fulfilled in his lifetime. But he believed that his followers would continue the fight. He believed that the nation would make great progress, He believed the the trajectory our nation was on would bend further towards justice. King believed his legacy was not about what he did while he was alive, but what would come of him and his beliefs after he died. A legacy is not about the impact that we have on this world when we are living. A legacy is about the impact we have generations later, long after we left this world. 

As we prepare to honor MLK’s legacy, we are reminded that this federal holiday is not a day of remembrance, but a day of service. This is not a day of reflection, but a day of action. We look at the world around us, the world that we are living in, at this transitional moment in our nation’s history, and wonder, is this a world that MLK would be proud of? We are left wondering how Dr. King would react in such a society and in such a world. Ultimately, legacy does not only live on through memory, stories, textbooks or children’s books, or movies about the civil rights movement. Legacy lives on through action. 

When we bury our loved ones in the Jewish faith, we pray that the souls of the departed are bound up in the bond of our lives. That does not mean that we believe in resurrection. That does not mean that we believe our loved ones communicate with us from the world to come, even if we find comfort in that. What this means is that as long as we live our lives just as they did, they live on. As long as we believe in the same ethics and values that they did and walk the same path, in their footsteps while creating a pathway for ourselves, they live on through us. At this turning point in our nation’s history, may we not forget to act as Dr. King acted, to live as he lived. May we fulfill his promise in his final speech so that all of society finally reaches the promised land. And may we make sure his legacy lives on through all of our actions. May he not only be remembered, but also bound up in the bond of our lives. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Watch Revereend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech here:

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