Monthly Archives: August 2019

The Divine Act of Loving the Stranger

A midrashic tale appears in Bamidbar Rabbah. It tells of a shepherd who led his flock of sheep in the fields all day and then gathered them in the stable at night. One day, a deer appeared from the forest and grazed with the flock, and at night entered the stable with the sheep. The shepherd took specific care of the deer. He found special grazing land for it and was gentle with it. At night, he made sure the deer has extra water to drink.

The townsfolk would ask the shepherd why he cared so much for the deer and didn’t give the same attention to the sheep. The presumed answer is that the sheep are comfortable already in their home and their surroundings. The deer left her home for safety and better pastures. It was the responsibility of the shepherd when the deer was most vulnerable to pay special attention to caring for her.

In Parashat Eikev, the Torah reaffirms God’s commitment to help those in need: “[God] upholds the cause of the orphans and the widowed, befriends the migrants, providing them with food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18). Moses then clarifies what it means to walk in God’s ways and observe God’s mitzvot. “You too must befriend the migrant, for you were migrants in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19).

While we are commanded to love and welcome the stranger more times than any other command in the Torah, it is especially impactful in this context because here, the Torah is telling us that we should welcome the stranger because God welcomes the stranger. To love and welcome immigrants is about more than just our history of immigration. It is a divine act. It is a holy act. It is what God does, and what God in turn, expects from us. God is the shepherd. And so, we must be as well.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Not 10 for 2. Instead 2 for 12.

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks going on a camp tour. Rabbi Marder and I visited our Congregation Beth El kids at the NJ Y Camps, at Nah Jee Wah, Cedar Lake Camp, and TAC. I went last week to see a few of our kids who are at Young Judea Sprout Lake and at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. On Sunday, I visited with our community members at Camp Ramah in the Poconos as well.

I went to see the magic of Jewish camp, to see the joy that these kids were experiencing while at Jewish camp, joy that we understood and wanted to replicate at Beth El, by having our own Beth El Goes to Camp retreat.

While at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, Rabbi Ethan Linden, camp director,  made an important point. All those who work in the camping world have a slogan: 10 for 2. You live 10 months of the year for the 2 months of summer. Those who work year round at camp, work hard for ten months to present a meaningful product over 2 months. Campers put up with school and winter and all that comes with living at home, for 2 months in their happy place, in the utopia that is camp.

As marketers, that is what you want from consumers, for them to yearn to come back, to count down the days until next summer, in the same way that people await the next blockbuster superhero movie to hit theaters, or wait in line to buy the newest iPhone. Camp should be on their mind in the same way.

But as educators, 10 for 2 is a failed model. Because that means that you put all your love and energy into the two months of the summer and then after the summer, that joy and impact stays at camp, remains in the summer, until next summer that is. Maybe it should instead be 2 for 10, or 2 for 12, that the experiences one has over the two months at camp carry with them for the whole year.

ramahpoconosSometimes, we don’t realize the impact in the moment itself, it is only after the fact, when we look back, the memory of the moment is what has the lasting impact. I remember when I’d come home from camp, long before these days where camps would post hundreds of pictures a day online, and the first thing I’d do was go and drop off 20 rolls of film. I’d anxiously wait from them to be developed and then sit and look through picture-by-picture. I’d Looking back at time and place of the memory and better understanding the impact of that experience.

That is what is going on in Parashat Ma’sei, the last Torah portion in the book of Numbers, and originally the last portion of the Torah. Before editors added on the book of Deuteronomy to the biblical canon, Torah ended with a reminder of all the places the Israelites traveled and stopped along the way, a reminder of those places that were inhabitable, a reminder of how quite remarkable it was that the Israelites survived wandering for 40 years.

And for those 40 years, they complained a lot. They made a Golden Calf, they wanted better food to eat, purer water to drink. At times they wished they had never left Egypt. They were “home sick” if you will. And yet, looking back, as we retrace our steps, and retell the story, we come to realize the impact of the journey. The journey, the wandering, defines us as a people, and we weren’t even there for it.

Nachmanides points out that a recounting of the Israelites’ wanderings in these uninhabitable lands only highlights their faith in God that they continued to wander and trust in God. Clearly the experience of their wandering was quite different than how they experienced it in the moment.  The impact of the 40 years of wandering, the Israelites’ metaphorical 2 months at summer camp, was felt more when they returned home, in the recounting of their journey, than during the journey itself.

And that’s our goal as well. Not just for our children who go off to camp, but for all of us, whatever we do and wherever we find meaning. We may not appreciate it in the moment itself, but if done well, the impact is everlasting after the fact, as we continue to recount our journey, even as we continue to figure out our destination.

May every summer be the experience of a lifetime. And may each summer camp experience impact our children’s lives for the entirety of their lives. When they return home, may they reflect on camp and appreciate the holiness of that experience and make those experiences a regular part of their lives.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Be a Sanctuary

Parashat Masei makes mention of the Ir Miklat, the Sanctuary City. Upon assigning and distributing the land of Israel to the different tribes, the Torah mentions that among the land distributed to the Levites, there should be six cities among the forty-eight towns, that are designated as Sanctuary Cities. While these cities are meant for the unintentional murderer to seek refuge from the Goel Hadam, from the relative of the deceased who seeks bloodshed as revenge, these cities of refuge hold a deeper meaning. It suggests that even when someone may no something that is deemed illegal (either by Jewish law or the law of the land), we have an obligation to protect them from the penalty of their actions which could be hurtful and life-threatening.

The New Sanctuary Movement has taken inspiration from the biblical concept of Ir Miklat, suggesting that houses of worship and religious institutions should become houses of refuge for undocumented immigrants, protecting them from the punishments of ICE and unjust and inhumane policies.

The Rambam though interprets that all of the forty-eight cities of the Levites were seen as cities of refuge (MT Rotz. 8:9). While he makes a distinction between those that the Levites resided in and those that they didn’t, the meaning of his teaching is clear: we have a responsibility in our communities to create sanctuary for our neighbors. We cannot build sacred space unless our communities are seen as safe space for all who reside in it. The Levites were spiritual figures, as they participated in ritual. There was a belief that living among the Levites, these spiritual leaders, elevated one’s kedushah, one’s holiness. Rambam reminds us that part of that holiness is protecting those who are most vulnerable and seeing their lives as equally holy.

At a time when immigrants – documented and undocumented – are living in constant fear because of xenophobic policies and enforcement of those policies by ICE, may we take inspiration from this Torah portion. May we strive to create sanctuary for all in need and may our sacred spaces always be safe spaces.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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