Monthly Archives: September 2019

Standing Still…

In Robert Frost’s famous poem, The Road Not Taken, he concludes with these words:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Atem Nitzavim HaYom. You stand here today. This is how Parashat Nitzavim begins.All of you stand here: men, women, and children, and elders, and tribal leaders, woodchopper and water drawer. The Hebrew is odd. It says Nitzavim rather than Omdim. Rather than, “you stand here,” the text is better translated as “you are stationed here.” We are still. We are not moving.

We stand on this day, as we prepare to conclude 5779, as we await for the gates of Heaven to open and usher in 5780. We stand on this day, all of us, together. No one is better than another. When we prepare to stand in front of the All Merciful Judge, we do so on equal ground, on a level playing field.

And why do we stand here? The Torah tells us  L’avrecha Bivrit Adonai Elohecha – To enter the covenant of Adonai your God. But we are not moving at this moment. Even Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of Blessed Memory, acknowledges that more than a people of thought, we are a people of action. But now, we are still.

We constantly look at life as a rat race. We keep moving and moving. We are like the hamster on the wheel, going and going and never stopping. Even our assumption at this moment is l’avrecha, that you shall pass through the covenant, you shall enter the covenant. It is about action.

But now, we are still because we are at a fork in the road and two roads diverge in front of us. There is the common path, the busy walkway that most go on. It is the way that we’ve taken so many times before. It is the way that we travel with our eyes closed. We don’t need to type in the address into our GPS. We don’t need to look for street signs or landmarks. This is the road that is comfortable.

And yet, we are standing still. We are frozen at the intersection, not sure which way to turn. We are comfortable on the path that we always travel, but are desperately trying to turn, and travel on the road less traveled this year, hoping that will make all the difference in 5780.

The Aderet Eliyahu, the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on the Torah, explains that when Moses declares that Atem Nitzavim, that we are all standing here, we must do so with our full selves. We are here not just with our physical bodies, but also with our souls, and with our spirit.

Because that makes all the difference — and that is the hardest part. Our bodies are standing still, but after we’ve spent this Hebrew month of Elul doing cheshbon hanefesh, doing an account of our souls, we cannot remain still. That is what must lead us on this new path, on the road less traveled.

We stand here now, wondering what direction we should take in the year to come. May that new direction be one full of purpose, meaning, and value. And may that make all the difference.

Shana Tova!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


Filed under Uncategorized

Renewing Our Covenant — and Making New Ones

I think about the most recent Elections in Israel and wonder if the goals of Israel and the mission of this Jewish state are the same as they were 71+ years ago when David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s Independence. They say sequels are never as good as the original, but this sequel to the 2019 Israel Elections didn’t disappoint. And the truth is, the concerns during this election were different because the country is different. The world is different. 71+ years ago, world Jewry was different and needed something different.

I think about conservative Supreme Court Justices like the late Antonin Scalia, who consider themselves to be Constitutionalists, believing the exact words of the Constitution, the “letter of the law,” should be interpreted in the exact same manner today, as it was almost 250 years ago at the establishment of this unique experiment called America. But again, America is different now. The world is different now. Our mission may be the same, but our values have evolved.

In fact, the essence of the ideology of Conservative Judaism is the belief that Halakha, Jewish law, is in itself an evolving document – that Torah is a Tree of Life, an Etz Chayim, because it always is meaningful in our lives, but means something different in my life than it may have to those living in Eastern Europe three centuries ago.

Parashat Ki Tavo is one of the most disturbing aspects of Moses’ final speech to the Israelites. He is scared. He knows that he is about to leave this world. He is scared to die. And he is scared of what legacy he will leave behind. Will he be remembered or forgotten? Will the lessons that he taught still resonate, or will the Israelites forge a new path? And as a result, the text is filled with beautiful blessings, but those are understandably totally overshadowed by the disgusting and disturbing curses that threaten the Israelites.

But at the end of the parasha, there is a throwaway verse. At the end of all the curses, we are told:

These are the terms of the covenant which God commanded Moses to conclude with the Israelites, to give to the Israelites, in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant which God made with them on Mount Horeb, on Sinai. (Deut. 28:69).

We pass over this and yet, this verse might be one of the most important lessons of the Torah. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years before entering the Promised Land. They do so so that they can be a different people when they enter the land. There is an acknowledgement that the slave generation, those who lived a life of servitude in Egypt, needed to die out. A generation of free people, who never experienced slavery are what is to enter the Promised Land. Two generations after the Israelites received the Torah, they are to enter the Promised Land, and within those two generations they evolve into a different people, with different needs, with a different mindset, support system, and ideology. The people who left Egypt are not those who enter the land of Israel. And so, their covenant is different too.

That is our lesson as well. We hold unto these contracts like we are the same people. The Ketubah, the Marriage Contract, the oldest continuous legal document we have in Jewish tradition, doesn’t take into account that people change, and that relationships change. The relationship between newlyweds who are high school sweethearts  is different than that of two retirees who have raised their children and witnessed their own children become parents. That is why couples “renew” their vows, but also why couples need to create new vows.

We need new covenants. We evolve. The world evolves. Our relationships evolve.

At this time of year, as we approach these Yamim Noraim, we do not simply reflect on the past, on who we have been, but we focus on the future and who we want to be. We do not simply remind ourselves of the covenant that we neglected, of the commitments that we ignored, of the promises we’ve broken. Instead, each and every year, we write a new covenant, with God, with each other, and with ourselves.

Just as Moses reaffirms the covenant made at Sinai, he establishes this covenant in Moab. May we feel inspired and courageous enough to acknowledge that we must establish new covenants in the new year. We do not ignore the past. Rather, we use that as the cornerstones of the covenants that we write for the future. May we find meaning in all the covenants we make, and may we all be written in the book of life for a good year to come.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Building Safe Communities and a Safe Society

There is a story of a man who lived by the river. He heard of radio reports that the river was going to rush up and flood the town and residents should evacuate. The man said, “I’m religious. God will protect me. God will save me.” The water level rose up and the neighborhood was flooded. A neighbor came by on a row boat and said, “Hop in.” But the man remained steadfast in his beliefs. “God loves me and will protect me,” he said. The waters rose to the point where the man had to find safe haven on his roof. A helicopter overhead dropped down a ladder to take him to safety. But he refused to grab on and shouted up to the pilot. “I am religious and God loves me and will protect me,” he reiterated. The man drowned. And when he stood face-to-face with the divine, he challenged God. “I am a religious man. I pray every day. I wrap tefillin. I keep Shabbat. Why did this happen?” And God replied, “I sent you radio reports, a rowboat, and a helicopter.”

Parashat Ki Tetzei teaches us:

“When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it” (Deut. 22:8).

We are told to build a small fence around the roofs of our homes as a sign of protection. Lest one falls off the roof, the fence serves as protection for them. And it is more than just the homeowner covering their bases, ensuring that legal action won’t be brought against them, like a biblical equivalent of a “Caution: Wet Floors may be Slippery” after an area has been mopped or a “Contents may be hot” warning on a disposable coffee cup.

This teaching exemplifies our need to make sure all of our spaces are safe spaces. We cannot build sacred space if we do not have safe space. We cannot depend on God’s protection if we, ourselves, are unwilling to act as God’s messengers and walk in God’s ways to offer safety to each other. It is our responsibility to make sure each of our homes are places where we all feel loved and embraced. And it is our responsibility to make sure our schools and houses of worship do the same.

Let us all put metaphorical parapets on our roofs. Let us make sure that all who walk through our doors feel safe, feel loved, and feel accepted. And instead of waiting for God’s protection, let us see each other as God’s angels, as God’s messengers, and find protection in the arms of one another just as we would under the wings of the Shechina.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Torah is only a Tree of Life, if it Guides us in Our Lives

We learn in Parashat Shoftim:

“’I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,’ you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Lord your God.” (Deut. 17:14-15).

The Torah then interestingly adds that when this sovereign is seated on the throne, he shall have a copy of this Torah written for him by the priests. This way, he will not act haughtily toward his follows or deviate from an ethical life.

The king being required to have their own Torah scroll written for him is an important teaching. The Talmud points out that even if a king inherits a Torah scroll from their ancestors, they must have another written. Lest they forget these ethics, the act of rewriting reminds them of these values to live by and govern by. Torah is meant to be lived, not only studied. In fact, Torah ends up being worthless if it is only studied and doesn’t ultimately guide us in our lives. The need for a sovereign leader to have a Torah scroll is also to remind them that society – and humanity – must be guided by these same ethics and values.

The Talmud adds that a king must write their Torah scroll as an amulet, a miniature scroll, to be attached to their right arm, like a Quarterback who during the huddle looks at the notes on his forearm for guidance on the next play. The Torah would accompany them constantly, wherever they went: in the palace or sitting outdoors, during war and peace. They would never forget the values that guide them in their decisions.

There was a second reason though that a king must write a Torah. It was  to remind us that this Torah was everyone’s Torah. This Torah – these ethics —  were the same ethics for sovereign and citizen. No matter one’s position of power, no one is above the law. Let me repeat: no matter one’s position of power, no one is above the law! No one is exempt from morality. May this be a reminder to us all. Let’s not compare ourselves to ourselves, but instead focus on ourselves individually, guided by the same ethics and morals, a reminder that the Torah, just as it was with kings, shall be on our right arm, to guide us through lives always.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized