Monthly Archives: October 2018

Words Matter

There’s a Hasidic story about a man who regretted the hateful words he said and finally wanted to change. He turned to his rabbi and asked how to repent. The rabbi told him to take his pillowcase and bring it into the middle of the forest and tear it open. He did just as the rabbi commanded. As he tore open the fabric, feathers flew everywhere. A gust of wind carried the feathers so far, the man could no longer see them. He returned to his rabbi, having completed the task, and feeling good. “Now go collect all the feathers and put them back in the pillow,” the rabbi said. The man knew that this was an impossible task, and learned the impact of his hateful words.

At the very end of Parashat Vayera, we read of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. Chapter 22 of Genesis begins

 V’yehi achar Hadvarim Haeleh, And it came to pass, after these things.

Most assume this is like the scrolling words at the beginning of a Star Wars film. They are meant to fill you in on what happened immediately prior to this narrative. They are meant to link the stories of the expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar, and Abraham’s conversations with Abimelech to this commandment to kill his son.

But the Hebrew word Devarim, means more than just “things.” It also means “words” and that is how the classical biblical commentator Rashi reads this verse. After these words were said, this happened. Rashi offers two midrashim, two rabbinic interpretations, to explain what words were said. First he suggests that these were the words of the Adversary, the celestial being that was God’s enemy, meant to challenge God. The Adversary said that Abraham wasn’t “devout enough” and wouldn’t even sacrifice those that he loved if God commanded him to do so, leading to this test by God. Second, Rashi suggests that these were words between brothers Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was giving Isaac a hard time because he was circumcised at only eight days old, while Ishmael went through the pain of being circumcised at thirteen years old. Giving his brother a hard time, Ishmael challenged Isaac to experience pain to show his commitment to God.

No matter the words that were said that led to the binding of Isaac narrative, we are reminded that words matter. Words lead to action. This has been on my mind as bombs were sent to news networks, Democratic party leaders, and financial supporters of Democratic candidates, after the President referred to them as enemies of the state. This was on my mind all last night, following the mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and seeing the President speak – and tweet – time and time again using the word “globalist,” a dog whistle Anti-Semitic slur.

The Anti-Defamation League said that this weekend’s mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue was likely the largest mass killing of Jews in US History. They regularly speak of the escalation of hate. They teach that words of bias are at the bottom of the pyramid of hate, but that eventually leads to bias motivated violence. Words matter.

Psalm 120 says that words are like sharp arrows, like smoldering coals. Midrash explains that they are like arrows because an individual can stand in one place and his words can still harm another, no matter how far away. And they are like coals because even when the outer parts of the coal have turned to ash, the inner embers still burn. Our words do damage long after we have even forgotten what words we’ve said.

And some time after these words, a terrible action happened.

Abraham acted, without even realizing how terrible his action was. Some argue that he failed the test by participating in such an act of violence. He was so focused on the act that he couldn’t even hear an angel of God calling out to him telling him to stop. That angel of God had to intervene. Midrash even says that the angel grabbed his hand and had him slaughter a ram caught in the thickets to prevent him from harming his son. Words did not cause his action, but they led to his action.

Let us think before we speak. Lest, like arrows or coals, our words cause serious harm to one another.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Make Room on Your Ark

Noah was a righteous man, simple in his generation. Noah walked with God. Rabbinic tradition has debated these opening words of Parashat Noach for centuries. What does it mean that “Noah was righteous, in his generation?” Was he righteous, or only compared to those around him who were even worse? Was Noah graded on a bell curve? Alternatively, would he have been even more righteous, if he was among those who were righteous.

Not only was Noah instructed to build an ark to protect himself and his family from the expected flood.  He was commanded to include every type of animal on that ark. The Torah tells us fourteen of every pure animal and two of every impure animal should be included. He made room for even the impure animals on his ark, but when it came to humanity, when it came to people, it was just Noah and his family. And Noah did as God said. He built that ship with gopher wood. He invited all those animals unto the ark. Then, the flood came:

All the fountains of the great deep burst apart and all the floodgates of the sky broke open (Gen. 7:11).

But the flood didn’t happen overnight. Commentators suggest that God gave a 120-year warning, prior to the flood’s arrival. Many interpret the words of Genesis 6:3, “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years,” to be God’s way of warning society that God will wipe out humanity in 120 years if people are unwilling to change.

The Torah tells us that Noah was 600-years-old when the flood came. He had 120 years to build the ark, but he also had 120 years to change society, and to change God’s mind. He did neither. He just focused on the blueprints and dimensions. He just focused on making sure there was enough room for his family. He wasn’t concerned with saving anyone, but himself. He wasn’t concerned with protecting any family, but his own.

TNoahsArkhus, Noah wasn’t that righteous after all. He failed because while God walked with him, he refused to walk with anyone else – he walked alone. The Kabbalistic text of the Zohar refers to the flood as the Flood of Noah, for it was Noah’s inaction that brought about this flood. A true test of righteousness is the stance one takes, the metaphorical arks one builds – and whether or not one builds an ark for just themselves, or if there is room on that ark for others. Are we only righteous when something directly impacts us? That is not righteous at all. It is selfish. True righteousness comes when we care for the most vulnerable, when we are a voice for the silent, when we raise up the downtrodden, and when we use whatever privilege we have to protect those most in need. True righteousness comes when we make room for everyone on the ark.

For forty days and forty nights, as the floods washed away all of humanity, Noah sat alone, only with his guilt.

When the flood subsided, God promised to never destroy the earth again. But God also cast a rainbow in the sky. Zot Ot haBrit, God said. This is a sign of the covenant between us. The diversity of the colors of the rainbow, all different hues, shows the diversity of all made in God’s divine image. This sign in the sky was a reminder to Noah. One cannot only thing about themselves. One cannot only think of a single color. We are all intertwined. And thus, we must all be there for each other. We, humanity united, is that sign of the covenant. All of us – made in God’s divine image. Will you make sure there is enough room on the ark of everyone in need?

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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