Monthly Archives: March 2019

The Smallest Acts are also the Holiest

I remember my first summer as a CIT at Camp Ramah in Nyack. I have spent many summers there, as a counselor and Rosh Edah (Division Head), but it was those initial weeks during my first summer that I truly learned what leadership looked like from the camp’s director, Amy Skopp Cooper. Being a CIT was a ton of fun and a lot of work — a balancing act between caring for children and also having to work in the kitchen, serving hundreds of hungry children and even hungrier counselors on a daily basis. Admittedly, on hot summer days, I would hide in the walk-in fridge with other CIT’s – using this space as our experimental air conditioning – and avoid being asked to bring a fourth serving of grilled cheese to a table of fifth graders. I was about to enter college and clearly had a lot to learn about leadership. But ultimately, Amy taught me the most important of lessons.

Every afternoon featured ice cream popsicles and sandwiches on the migrash, the grass field in the center of camp where only hours earlier we would begin our days with Israeli dancing. By week three, you could notice the divots made in the sod from the extreme ruach-filled dancing to HaYeladim Koftzim. The mid-summer look of the migrash was evidence of joyful Judaism in action. But each afternoon, that same field was full of ice cream wrappers, a sign of satisfied campers, and well, children who aren’t so good at cleaning up after themselves.

During those first few weeks of my CIT summer, I vividly remember walking through camp, and speaking with Amy Skopp Cooper about the Jewish future. As we walked and had a very intense and yet quite informal conversation, she slowly would pick up a piece of litter and hold unto it until we found a trash can. I noticed the humble act and began to do the same. So did the other CIT’s around us. She never delegated this responsibility, expecting someone else to take it on. Rather, humbly as the camp director, she understood that the smallest of acts as a leader are the holiest.

In Parashat Tzav, we not only learn of the multitude of sacrifices that the priests were to perform, but also of their responsibility to clean up those sacrifices.

“He [the priest] shall take off his [priestly] vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes the outside the camp” (Lev. 6:4).

The priests did not delegate such “dirty work” to those who were lowest on the totem pole. Instead, they understood the importance of rolling up their sleeves. The sacred work wasn’t just about the ritual. It was about the everyday work that we too often take for granted, delegate to someone else, or ignore altogether. In fact, Rabbeynu Bahya, of 14th century Spain, clarifies that this act of “cleaning up” was a part of the sacrifice itself. In essence, he was saying that this act, the simple and everyday, was as holy as the ritual of sacrifice, if not more so. The haftarah for this Torah portion, taken from the book of Jeremiah, suggests that we weren’t even meant to offer meaningless sacrifices.

Jeremiah, speaking on behalf of God, explains:

“For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people. And walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you’” (Jer. 7:22-23).

Jeremiah is suggesting that if we only focus on the ritual and miss everything else, then the ritual becomes meaningless. If we only look at the letter of the law, and ignore the meaning behind it — the intent — then it is meaningless. If our holy acts become rote, devoid of any form of intention, then they are meaningless. Furthermore, walking in God’s ways, the everyday acts of life and our routines, are holier than the occasional rituals themselves.

Maybe then it is not those rituals that matter most of all. Ritually speaking, anyone can learn how to recite the proper words of liturgy. B’nai mitzvah can learn the trope to chant an Aliyah of Torah. From a leadership perspective, an elected official can put out a carefully edited and wordsmithed press release. But what do they do when the cameras are off them? What do they say when a journalist isn’t asking for a quote?

Our holiest of acts — those that define who we are — aren’t the pomp and circumstance of ritual. It’s not the sacrificial ritual acts. It’s the everyday and simple acts. It’s the cleaning up of the ashes by the priest. It’s the picking up of the ice cream wrappers on the migrash by the camp director. It’s the way an elected official acts when they aren’t posing for a photo shoot. It’s our everyday obligations to each other. That is what should define us. So let us all be more aware of our simplest acts. They have the power to be our holiest acts.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Hearing God’s Call by Recognizing the Godliness in Each Other

The entire book of Leviticus begins with the announcement: Vayikra – and God called out to Moses. Immediately after that, the text says Vaydaber Adonai Ailav — And God spoke to him. Why then must God first call out to Moses before speaking to him? God also calls to Moses as Moses ascends Sinai to experience revelation. Similarly, we learn that when Moses was a shepherd and looking at the burning bush, God called out to Moses from within the bush.

The divine act of calling out is a wake-up call, a reminder to pay attention. While God speaks to Moses immediately after calling out to him, God must first call out to him, to make him aware of the moment, to make him aware of what is happening, of what is about to be said, of what is about to take place.

This is also a reminder to all of us that we must answer the call. There is is a difference between hearing God’s words – Vaydaber – when God speaks — and answering God’s call – Vayikra.

As we prepare to celebrate the festival of Purim, we look forward to chanting from Megillat Esther, the book of Esther. With Esther in a position of power, she uses her authority and her position of influence as Queen to stop Haman’s attempted massacre of the Jews of Persia. Mordechai tells Esther in 4:13:

 “do not think because you live in the King’s Palace that you alone will be saved.”

He is essentially saying that hate does not discriminate and it doesn’t matter how much privilege you have – living in the King’s palace — or how much you conceal your identity to “fit in” – like changing your name from the Hebrew ‘Hadassah’ to the more Persian sounding ‘Esther’ as she does in the first verses of the Megillah. Hate against one minority is a threat against all minorities. Hate against another because one sees them as “the other” is the true form of injustice. And it was exactly being the other – the fact that Mordechai and thus all Jews worshipped differently than what Haman wanted or permitted – that led him to want to murder the Jews of Shushan. But maybe Esther would’ve been saved. Maybe Mordechai was wrong. Maybe as King Ahashverosh’s favorite Queen, living in the palace with a Persian name, she would’ve been spared. Which makes her openness to hearing God’s call to action all the more remarkable.

Megillat Esther stands out among the books of the Tanakh because God does not appear in it at all, or at least not explicitly. God is very much present in this text because “Vayikra” – Esther hears God’s call, a call to stand up and to speak up, a call to fight against persecution, hate, and injustice, not just because it is happening to her people, but because it is happening to God’s people, for we are all God’s people. The book of Esther is not just a story about the Jewish people being saved. It is a story about someone using their power, privilege, and influence to stand in unity with those in need – not because Esther was a Jew, but because Esther was Queen.

This past Shabbat, we were not just instructed to hear God’s call – and not only God’s words, but understand exactly what God’s call is. What does it mean? On Shabbat Zachor, we read of Amalek – we read about those who snuck up on the Israelites from behind as they were wandering through the wilderness, and attacked the women, children, and elderly. We read this on the Shabbat prior to Purim because we believe that in every generation, Amalek rears their heads again and that Haman was a descendant of the Amalekites. Last week’s tragic shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand was the latest example of the hate of Amalek. The white supremacist terrorist who sought to publicize such hate by livestreaming the mass shooting and terror attack and by posting a 75-page screed on social media prior to the shooting that made reference to white pride, xenophobia, and President Trump, was also a descendant of Amalek. We are commanded in the verses of Deuteronomy to both “not forget” what Amalek did to you, and yet to also “blot out the memory” of Amalek. How do we reconcile both such acts, that are seemingly contradictory?

We are told to never forget such hate – never forget that hate is always lurking in the shadows. Amalek is always trying to sneak up behind us. Haman is always waiting in the wings. White supremacists are amplifying their voices through social media and through elected office, through a rise in bigotry, Islamophobia, Anti-semitism, and xenophobia. But we still strive to erase such hate – we strive to blot out such hate nonetheless. We do not let that hate define us, for we believe that we have the right to pray without fear – and so do people of all faiths, including our Muslim brothers and sisters. We have the right to gather in celebration without worrying about our safety.

Upon hearing the news of this terrorist attack, I reach out to my friends at the NIA Masjid and Community Center. Rabbi Rachel Marder and I, as rabbis at Congregation Beth El, along with our rabbinic colleagues in South Orange, New Jersey, joined our Muslims brothers and sisters at the NIA Masjid and Community Center for their Jumu’ah prayers. Why? That is how we blot out the hate of Amalek. That is how we ensure that hate doesn’t win. And yes, we could stay silent. Or, like Esther we could stand up and speak up. We could hear God’s call – Vayikra — and act. And be united. So how do we not forget and still blot out? By standing with our brothers and sisters, no matter faith or ethnicity. We answer God’s call by seeing the Godliness in each other.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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At the Center of our Relationship with God is the Broken and Whole

We just concluded the book of Exodus and in doing so, also concluded the narrative that focused on the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites brought with them as they traveled throughout the wilderness.

At the end of this section, God reminds Moses how to set up the Tabernacle:

Place there the Ark of the Pact and screen off the ark with the curtain. Bring in the table and lay out its due setting, bring in the lampstand and light its lamps and place the gold altar of incense before the ark of the Pact. (Ex. 40:3-5)

And then Moses does exactly that.

He took the Pact and placed it in the ark, and he fixed the poles to the ark, placed the cover on top of the ark, and brough the ark inside the Tabernacle. (Ex. 40:20)

Central to the Tabernacle is not the altar where offerings and sacrifices took place, but instead the Ark of the Covenant. And what was in that ark? What was at the center of this sanctuary that was core to the Israelites relationship with God?

broken tabletsThe tablets. But not just the second set that Moses carved again. Both sets of tablets were placed inside the ark. The broken and the whole.

While the Talmud Yerushalmi teaches that two Arks journeyed with Israel in the wilderness— one in which the Torah was placed, and the other in which the Tablets broken by Moses were placed, the Babylonian Talmud offers a different interpretation. Tractate Bava Batra teaches that Rabbi Meir clarifies that something else was in the ark — the broken tablets side-by-side with the whole tablets.

At the center of the sanctuary, at the center of that in which God’s divine Presence, Kavod Shechina, finally resides, and thus at the center of where the Israelites saw God, felt God, and found God, was not just a reminder of their commitment and relationship to God, but also a reminder of their mistakes, of their imperfections, of their brokenness.

We must wrestle with God when we feel broken, just as much as when we feel whole. We find God in loss and illness, in mourning, in heartache. We find God when we do wrong, and when we are looking to rebuild our own Tabernacles. We find God when we curse and yell and cry at God, not just at times of joy and celebration, times of success and light. May we always place at the center of our sanctuaries. And at the center of our relationship with God, me we always put forth that which is whole, and that which is broken. For both are holy.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Tabernacle and Disney Magic

After returning from a week-long family trip to Disney — notice I did not refer to it as a vacation, because if you’ve ever taken kids to Disney World before, you know it’s not a vacation — I can’t stop thinking about the power of Disney. I’m not just referring to the happiness and the “Disney Magic.” I’m referring to the customer service. Like when my nephew was upset that at a character breakfast, Donald Duck signed his autograph book and signed it over Cinderella’s autograph. Daisy Duck immediately noticed and picked him out of the crowd to dance with him and turn his frown into a smile. Or when my son was trying to trade Disney pins on his lanyard (if you don’t know about Disney pin trading, that’s a whole other story) one night before a fireworks show and then realized that his lanyard was back at the hotel room with half of the family (and a sleeping baby.) When he began to get teary-eyed, the individual working the cash register selling ice cream bars noticed and gave him the two pins he wanted. Again, the goal was to turn his frown into a smile.

GoofyBecause Disney employees aren’t really employees. They are cast members. They are all playing a part. They are all integral in making up the Disney community and creating Disney magic. This isn’t just about Mickey and Minnie Mouse. This includes the individuals who are checking your tickets, those selling cotton candy, those working in the gift shops, those taking your pictures in front of Cinderella’s castle, and even those sweeping up the food you just spilled on the ground. They are all cast members. And they are all integral to making sure that your experience is magical.

It was an important lesson, reminding me not just that every person matters, but every person can have an impact. In fact, every person must have an impact.

On Shabbat Shekalim, we read the special maftir Torah reading in which we are told:

“Everyone shall give a half shekel… the rich shall give no more and the poor shall give no less” (Ex. 30:14-15).

Everyone was to bring a half shekel. This was a reminder that everyone is community mattered. And everyone counted. Everyone did not bring a full shekel. Everyone only brought a half, a piece, because it was only together that they were whole.

And so too, in Parashat Vayakhel, we were commanded to bring gifts to build the tabernacle, and told to give of our skills and materials. So much was brought that it was more than enough. But it was only more than enough because everyone participated. If only one person gave all of themselves, no matter how much they gave, it wouldn’t have been enough. But everyone gave and so it was more than plenty.

Disney wouldn’t be magical, even if you got to meet Mickey and Minnie, if it was dirty, and messy, and people were mean and unhelpful. What makes it magical is the smile on everyone’s face. What makes it magical is that everyone is invested in its success.

What ultimately made the Tabernacle holy was the contribution of all. We are taught that Kavod Shechina, God’s earthly Presence, eventually resided in the Mishkan once it is complete. Because God resides where community resides. God was present where community came together. It was through community, through each person mattering, counting, and serving as a “cast member” of the Israelite community, that we were able to see God’s earthly Presence, that we were able to see God in each other.

Similarly, let us see the value and worth, the Presence, in each person. Let each individual bring our skills and our goods, and be a cast member, as we build holy community together. Then we can see the magic. We don’t need fireworks shows or Tinkerbell’s pixie dust. Just seeing each other as divine allows us to see the Divine. And hopefully, the lines won’t be as long.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


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