Monthly Archives: December 2017

On The Eighth Night of Chanukah

The following message was shared on the final night of Chanukah with the Congregation Beth El community:


Tonight, as we celebrate the final night of Chanukah, we’ll admire the full illumination of the chanukiyah, the Chanukah menorah. Every candle will be lit, every flame will be burning bright. Lighting the menorah to its full brilliance is joyful, even though we know it means that the conclusion of the holiday is near.

The uniqueness of the commandment to kindle the lights of the menorah is the requirement to first light the shamash, the helper candle, and to use that candle to light others. It is an acknowledgement that sometimes we cannot create light on our own. We depend on others to help us see the light; to help us be the light. 

That is the essence of community. The beauty of Beth El is our obligation, responsibility, and opportunity to be the light for one another. We are there as the shamash to help you find light during times of grief and mourning, and we are there to help spread your light during celebration. Our community can also serve as sliver of light in a sometimes dark world, standing up for each other — and with each other — in the face of adversity. 

As powerful as a single candle in the darkness is on that first night of Chanukah, it pales in comparison to the power of the fully lit menorah tonight. The light of a single flame is increased by the other candles of the menorah. So too, our light — our own unique light as individuals — has the power to light up the darkness. But our own light is increased when surrounded by the light of others.

We find that light through learning, and we find that light through witnessing our children learn. We spread that light through prayer, and we find that light through activism. We light up each other as we build community together. 

As we watch the candles slowly burn this evening, let us be inspired by the power of the light of a full menorah. Let us remember the power of being unified, of coming together, of being there for one another and knowing that others will be there for us. May the lights of the menorah inspire us to be that light for each other, and may we always find that light in our community.

Chag Urim Sameach!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky 

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We’ve Been Down this Hole Before

You can’t go to the midnight opening showing of Episode VIII without understanding the seven Star Wars movies that have come before it. Similarly, as amazing as the events of Parashat Mikketz are, you can’t truly appreciate them without understanding them in relation to Parashat Vayeshev
In Parashat Vayeshev, Joseph’s brothers, out of jealousy and hatred towards him, throw him into a pit. They literally have a picnic as they debate what his destiny should be. The compromise is selling him into slavery, but his seemingly hopeless future begins in a pit. It is as literal as it is metaphoric. The Torah says:

“And they took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty. There was no water in it.” (Genesis 37:24) 

The rabbis believed that no word in the Torah was superfluous. So then why the need to say both? If we know the pit was empty, then why also stipulate that there was no water in it? Rashi tries to clarify and says there were snakes and scorpions in the pit, which of course there’s no justification for, and makes no sense if the Torah already said the pit was empty. I believe that calling the pit empty was a reflection of how Joseph felt at that moment. He felt empty, alone, lost, and by himself, with no one and nothing to guide him. In Mesechet Taanit, the Talmud refers to Torah as water. Our commentators thus suggest that “there was no water in it” means that Joseph was in an empty pit, without Torah. He did not have the ethics and values to guide him and he did not know what to do next. He was stuck in a hole and there was nobody there to help him out.

Yet, after all of that, what happens in Parashat Mikketz is really miraculous. After being abandoned by his brothers, after being framed by Potiphar’s wife, after being forgotten in prison by those that he helped save, Joseph is called upon to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. I believe what he does next is not just out of fear of Pharaoh or a sense of obligation to do what Pharaoh asks. Joseph doesn’t just interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Joseph ends up saving an entire population from famine, from food insecurity. He was in that empty pit – literally – and lost – metaphorically – and he turns around and is able to save everyone. When Pharaoh, and all of Egypt, are lost and similarly in their own empty pit, Joseph knows that experience and is able to help them out. 

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite shows, The West Wing, which I encourage binge watching on a regular basis. If you watch it enough, you might even forget for a moment about the current realities of our society and government. I’m not sure if this story originates from The West Wing, but even if not, it is retold in a way that only Aaron Sorkin is able to do. In season two, Josh Lyman, Deputy Chief of Staff, is dealing with PTSD, following being shot in an assassination attempt on the President at the end of season one. He is dealing with serious trauma in his life. Leo McGarry, the White House Chief of Staff, who is a recovering addict, and has his own share of dealing with personal trauma, shares this story with his colleague: 

This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.'”

Joseph had been down that hole of hopelessness. When he sees Pharaoh and Egypt stuck in the same hole, he doesn’t take charge and action because he sees an opportunity for his dreams to be fulfilled, for him to rise in power and prominence. He does so because he was in that hole before, empty and devoid of the values to guide us on our path, and he knew what it felt like, so he jumped in to help Egypt out of that hole. 

The essence of Chanukah, of placing the light of our chanukiyot in our windows, is a powerful message. We are actually prohibited from using that light to benefit us. Shabbat candles had a practical purpose. You lit candles as it went dark, and you used that light to light up the room, the dinner table, etc. You can read by the candle light, and when the candles burn out, it is dark and time for bed. But the Talmud stipulates that you can’t use the light of the Chanukah candles for your own benefit. They are solely meant to go in our windows to follow the commandment of pirsum hanes, to publicize the miracle. But more so than that, we place the menorah in our windows to share our light with those who need it most. We light up the darkness that others are feeling. Because we have been there. We have been in that dark place before. That is why we are taught to increase the number of candles each night of Chanukah, to always add more light to the darkness. That is our challenge and that is our goal. That is what Joseph did. He was there. And so he knew what it felt like. And that is our goal too! We have been in this hole before. So when we experience someone else struggling with darkness, we put our menorahs in the window. We jump down the hole with them, because we know the way out.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Ignoring Hate Has Consequences

Many gathered around the Thanksgiving table last week grateful for life’s blessings. Breaking bread with family and friends, we were not only thankful for the turkey and stuff, but especially thankful for those in our lives. However, many of us also concluded the Thanksgiving holiday thankful for “surviving” it. We had much to be thankful for, but we survived the great uncle who always says something racist, or the cousin whose world view is completely different than ours. These meals are often like ticking time bombs waiting for one bigoted comment too many to finally cause someone to explode. We fear these holiday meals because we no longer sit at the table with those we disagree with. We share our tables with those who share our values. We don’t have sacred disagreements. They are emotionally exhausting. So we bite our tongues and hope that that xenophobic relative behaves himself.

This past Shabbat, when reading Parashat Vayishlach, we read of Esau’s reunion with Jacob. Furious and angry over his brother pretending to be him to steal a blessing from their father, Esau seemed determined to harm and hurt his brother only chapters ago. Yet, upon seeing his brother, and his brother’s family, Esau runs to Jacob and embraces him. They hug, kiss, and weep together. The rabbis go out of their way to be critical of Esau, since Judaism sees him as the polar opposite of Jacob and they try to celebrate Jacob as a biblical patriarch. Yet Esau should truly be celebrated. He is a shining example of how to forgive and not hold a grudge. We should all learn from his example. Still, I can’t help but think that Esau failed in some way. Esau hugging and kissing his brother shouldn’t be that remarkable, but it is because he stays in contact with someone who harmed him. When someone says something offensive, we unfriend them. We block them on social media. We think their views are offensive. And maybe they are. But we never tell them.

This past week, as part of the Anti-Defamation League’s Glass Leadership Institute, which I am honored to be a part of, I had the privilege of learning from Jason Sirois, ADL’s director of No Place for Hate. I am proud that we worked to bring the No Place for Hate educational program to South Orange Middle School eighteen months ago. Sirois joked about the all too commonplace “Thanksgiving eye roll,” when a relative says something that is hurtful to you or to someone else — something that is rooted in prejudice or bias — and you just roll your eyes because your family has expected that, well, that’s just how your relative is. And it is easier to ignore than confront.

But that’s how we got here. By ignoring instead of confronting. When the leader of the free world tweets such offensive comments so frequently that we’ve stopped calling them out, we just roll our eyes. When people in positions of power have abused their power to sexually assault others, and for too long we have ignored it and not called it out, causing many to be fearful of coming forward, fearing being doubted, challenged, blamed or shamed. We didn’t call it out because we say we like their movies, of that we appreciate their journalism, or we ignore it because they promised us tax cuts, and as a result, we normalize it. We normalize violent behavior and we normalize bigoted beliefs. When meeting with Jason Sirois of the ADL, he explained that bias leads to prejudice, which leads to discrimination, which leads to violence, which leads to genocide.

So don’t think that ignoring that which is harmful doesn’t have consequences. We must always have room to forgive and believe that people can change. That’s the lesson we learn from Esau. But he still failed because he never called out Jacob for his hurtful actions and words. In fact, even in his initial anger after learning that his brother tricked their father into giving him a blessing, even when he declares that he wants to kills Jacob, the text says Vayomer Esav Belibo, Esau says this in his heart. He keeps his feelings to himself. He never shares his hurt, his heartache, his pain, his anger. He never shares why his is offended.

And then he returns and hugs, kisses, and embraces Jacob. Loving family — no matter what — is important. But if we roll our eyes, and simply ignore that which is hurtful to be said and spread, then we are condoning such hate. The Talmud reminds us that silence is tantamount to consent. It is physically and emotionally exhausting to call out such hate and bigotry all the time. But ignoring it has consequences and leads to that which is far worse.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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