Monthly Archives: October 2019

God Created Humanity. And now we have the Power to do Good.

Vayar Elohim Ki Tov. And God saw that it was Good. Veheyi erev vayehi boker. And it was evening. And it was morning.

That is how each day of the creation narrative concludes: And God say it was good; there was evening and there was morning; the first day. And God saw that it was good; there was evening and there was morning; the second day.

But there is something different about the last two days. For each day of creation, it says Yom Echad, the first day. Yom Sheni, the second Day. Yom Shelishi, the third Day, etc. But, once we get to the sixth day, the day that humanity was created, the Hebrew specifies, Yom HaShishi, adding in the prefix of the letter Hey, which means ‘the.’ But doing so also personalizes the noun. This definite article here, and again with Shabbat, referred to as Yom Hashvi’i, the seventh day, signifies that there is something special, something different, about these days.

These days signify the uniqueness of the creation of humanity, but also an understanding of our responsibility, as humanity, to be God’s partners and take responsibility for this world — to finish completing this broken and incomplete world that God set out to create. And Shabbat celebrates our relationship with God, and our promise to be God’s partners. At first there was only darkness in the world. But God creates light and then separates out the light from the darkness. The definite Hey reminds us to be the light in the darkness, to be the light unto the world. 

The Babylonian Talmud, in Shabbat 88a, suggests the same idea but in different words. It clarifies that the Torah says Yom HaShishi because it is referring to a specific sixth day. The Talmud suggests that it refers to the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, when tradition teaches revelation happened at Sinai, when the Torah, scripture, was revealed. Rabbinic tradition concludes that after humanity was created, the Torah needed to be given in order from humanity to have purpose, to do what is good and what is right, to strive to make the world a better place.

We need ethics and values to guide us. We are lost without a guide to tell us what is right. But we are also lost without leaders who strive to do what is right. The world is broken when corrupt and crude leaders and their cronies ignore the same values given to all of humanity, which tells us to love the stranger, to love our neighbor, and to care for the most vulnerable. And we are lost when we stop standing up for what is right and stop realizing our responsibility in not only living our lives based on those values, but being God’s messengers — not just God’s partners — and sharing those values with the world.

Upon completing each day’s work, God said it was good. But on the sixth day:

v’et kol asher asah v’hineh tov me’od. And God did all of this and it was tov me’od, very good.

That is our ability. That is our responsibility. That is our obligation. And that is our burden. We have the ability to create a world that is much better than the one that currently exists. We have the ability to create a more just society upholding Torah and its values. But only if we are guided by ethics and values that inspire us to stand up for what is right.

Mishnah Avot explains that there is a whole list of things that God created at the conclusion of the sixth day, right at dusk, as the sun set, before Shabbat began – listing the miraculous unexplainable parts of Torah. This also serves as a rabbinic reminder that creation wasn’t complete once humanity was created. Rather, once humanity was created, we were then given the responsibility to complete this world, to finish building it. The question then that we must ask ourselves is what will we build? Will we sit on our hands, and let a society be built around us that seems antithetical to the same Torah given on the sixth day of Sivan during revelation? Or will we build a world that mirrors the Utopian idealism of the Garden of Eden – one based on peace and equality? It is our task to finish creating the world. Now let’s get to work!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Using the Extraordinary to Find God in the Ordinary

The Sfat Emet explains why Sukkot falls right after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He wonders why such a long and joyous holiday follows the Days of Awe and Season of Repentance. But practically speaking, I believe he is also acknowledging what many of us feel this time of year: it is difficult to fully appreciate the joy of Sukkot when we are exhausted following Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But the Sfat Emet, the former Gerer Rebbe who lived during the second half of the 19th century, explains that following the High Holidays there are many Baalei Teshuvah who don’t have a place for themselves.

This is a play on words here as the chasidic world using the term Baal Teshuvah to describe one who wasn’t previously observant to their religious standards and now is, but it literally means the person who has repented, appropriate following the Day of Atonement and Season of Repentance. Secondly, the Hebrew word Makom means ‘place,’ but is also a name for God, suggesting that God is in all and every place. He concludes that previously, they were lost, and had no ‘place,’ meaning they did not find God in their lives. But now, as Baalei Teshuvah, following repentance, they are found, they find meaning and purpose again, and appreciate God’s blessings all around them. The sukkah is their ‘place’ then to find God and help them do that.

He then makes a connection between the sukkah and the four species (lulav and etrog) and tzitzit and tefillin. The sukkah is like a tallit, or any garment with fringes on its four corners. Those tzitzit, fringes are supposed to remind us of God’s Presence all around us and the tallit, the prayer shawl, like the sukkah, is meant to serve as a reminder of God’s protection. He then connects the four species with the four scrolls that you find with the boxes of tefillin. We are taught that we wrap tefillin so that when we feel it and see it on us, it is a siman, a sign, of God’s Presence in our lives.

It is easy for me to connect to God when sitting in a sukkah, being outdoors, feeling the breeze, and looking up to see the stars through the s’chach. It is much more difficult to expect that fringes of a garment or leather straps can remind you of God’s Presence. But that is our goal: to find God everywhere, in everything, in the everyday. Following the High Holidays, we use the ritual objects of sukkah and lulav and etrog to help us connect to God. They though should be a catalyst to help us not be dependent on temporary booths or tree branches to see God. We should be able to find God in this makom, in this place, and in all places. We use the extraordinary of this festival to find God in hopes that when we transition back to the ordinary, back to the everyday, we find God in that makom as well.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Kol Nidre 5780: Children are Our Rainbow

Growing up, my family had an odd obsession: we would collect Noah’s arks. Anything that was Noah’s Ark related found in catalogues or at antique sales would end up in our home. To this day, the countertops of my parents’ kitchen covered with rainbow arches above miniature models of wooden boats, surrounded by parading animals, lined up two-by-two. I loved the story so much, I named my son after the biblical character. For my family, the story of Noah and his ark, was one about building a future, and a promise from God, a rainbow in the sky that we still see after every thunderstorm turns to sunshine, and a dove, complete with olive branch in beak, representing the possibility of peace.

This biblical narrative though is a troublesome one. Noah is called an Ish Tzadik Tamim haya b’dorotav, a righteous and simple person for his generation, the only person who God deems worth saving among a wicked generation. And so, he builds a lifesaving ark for himself and his family, and all animals that God created to ensure repopulation of the earth. But when God announces the imminent destruction of all humanity, Noah doesn’t flinch. He has a lifeboat – literally. He is safe. Throughout Torah, Abraham goes toe-to-toe with God in an attempt to save the innocent of Sodom and Gamora, cities where he did not reside. Moses stands up to God to defend the same Israelites that he spends most of his tenure as leader being critical of. But for Noah, he is only concerned with his own family and never thinks about the impact of his ambivalence or the world that he is left to live in after it was destroyed.

Approximately two million students from over 250 countries participated in a global climate school strike on Friday, September 20, ahead of the UN Climate Action Summit that took place days later. Coordinated by sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden, the strike was meant to gain attention to the issue, but also to make sure that young people on this planet, the ones whom we are leaving the earth to in this state, have a seat at the table and are part of the conversation. And the reality that we are leaving them is a scary one: hotter, drier weather in the Middle East has dried up the Tigris-Euphrates river basin; about 40% of the 10 million people who live in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta live below sea level, forcing the country’s President to announce that they will actually be moving the capital to higher ground; Miami and other coastal towns may not exist decades from now; droughts in California have caused water shortages and wildfires.

On this day where we admit our transgressions, my teacher and dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School, Rabbi Daniel Nevins writes: We were created amidst a clean and pure world, but now it is headed for destruction in our hands. Not on our own merits do we beseech You, Lord our God, for we have sinned, we have wasted, we have destroyed:  For the sin of filling the sea and land with filth and garbage;  For the sin of destroying forever species which in Your great mercy were saved from the flood;  And for the sin of laying bare the forests and habitats from which all creatures receive life.” Forgive us, Pardon us, Grant us Atonement.

I have a confession to make: I am not a very green person. Far from it actually. I use paper plates a lot because I hate doing the dishes. I often forget to separate out the recycling. When it was time to lease a new car, I went with the gas guzzling SUV instead of hybrid or electric models, because I was more interested in a third row with lots of leg room, not my carbon footprint. It’s not that I don’t care about protecting the planet. It’s more that I am unsure me doing anything can truly make a difference. Everything I’ve read suggests that we have passed the point of no return. After the forty-day-and-forty-night flood, there will be no rainbow in the sky.

Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University explains that a switch from plastic straws to paper straws alone won’t save the planet. He writes that, “focusing on individual choices around air travel and beef consumption  heightens the risk of losing sight of the gorilla in the room: civilization’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy and transport overall.”

On Yom Kippur, we pour our hearts out to God, not just admitting our mistakes, but we are meant to experience a spiritual death of sorts. And we make confessions as a community. Ashamnu. Bagadnu. Al Chet Shechatanu Lefanecha. Each statement is in the plural. We have sinned. We have transgressed. We have let this happen. We, together, have caused our communal death; we have brought this upon ourselves.

After all, when God gives responsibility of the utopian Eden to Adam and Eve, first God blesses them, and then says to them: be fruitful and multiply and fill the land. Then, v’chiv’shu’ha, and subdue it, Urdu bigdat Hayam, uv’of hashamayim, u’v’chol chaya haromeset al ha’aretz, and have dominion over the fish, and birds, and all mammals that roam the earth. Sforno, the Italian Rabbi and Biblical commentary of the 16th century explains that v’chiv’shu’ha is not a directive to conquer earth with muscular power, but to subdue it by means of humanity’s superior intellect. He understands Torah to mean that we must use our intelligence to protect earth. Our own intelligence, and courage, is what will save us.

Greta Thunberg first gained notoriety in August 2018 when she would stand outside the Swedish Parliament, then alone, holding up a sign that said “School Strike for Climate,” but through social media, her movement grew, launching a Fridays for the Future campaign, as well as this global school strike that some of our own children participated in just a couple of weeks ago. At her speech to the United Nations, she chastised world leaders:

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to me for hope? How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

But what gave Greta Thunberg hope that we can change was convincing her family to become vegan, convincing them to no longer travel by airplane. She realized that she could make a difference. She could change. She could save the world. We all can.

Al Gore, who has arguably become more influential and famous as an environmental hero than he ever was as Vice President, writes that he still has hope for the future. He says his hope “stems largely from the recent, unprecedented groundswell of youth activism that has raised public consciousness to new levels and is pushing political leaders to develop bold and ambitious ideas to confront this challenge. Harking back to the great social movements in history — youth activists are taking the lead.”

Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, of blessed memory, tells a story of a young child who cries out to God and declares that the world is such a mess. The child challenges God: Why don’t you send someone to change the world? God responds, I did send someone. I sent you. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubuvitcher Rebbe, taught: “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to complete. But if you only see what is wrong and what is ugly in the world, then it is you yourself that needs to repair.” It is our job now to repair the world. God sent us.

The theology of Yom and the concept of ‘who shall live and who shall die,’ is hardly believable for us. That is partially because we live in a world where we expect something and get it right away. That is because we fully expect to go to sleep tonight and wake up again in the morning. We care about the here and now, and we fully expect to be in the here and now. We don’t know about the future, but we don’t seem to be worried because that won’t affect us.

We learn in Taanit 23a of the Babylonian Talmud about a man walking along the road who comes across Honi the Circle Maker planting a Carob Tree. He looks at Honi and asks him: “how long will it take for the tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” Honi replies. “Seventy years?!?” The man cannot believe it. “You will not be alive in seventy years. Why would you plant a tree whose fruit you never get to eat,” the man scoffs. Honi quietly and confidently responded, “when I came into this world, there were carob trees ripe for the picking. Just as my parents planted for me, I will plant for my children.”

It is easy for us to not care about the future of the planet because we know it won’t affect us. We don’t have to worry about buying real estate on some space colony on Mars. We don’t have to worry about continents being submerged by water or animals becoming extinct. Not in our lifetime. But if that is how we view the future, then we are understanding the true message of Yom Kippur incorrectly. It’s not about the next day or the next year. It’s not about making it to the end of Neilah. It’s not about 5780. It is about what we want our legacies to be. What impact do we want to have in this world? Are we only concerned with us being written and sealed in the Book of Life for the year to come? Or do we want to make sure there is a Book of Life to be written into?

In our liturgy this evening, in our machzorim, we do not only that we have transgressed. We also ask God v’tein b’libeinu la’azov derech resha, to inspire our hearts to abandon this terrible path. Saying sorry isn’t enough. We need to be inspired to change. We need to be willing to change. We need to understand that what we as individuals strive to change may not be enough. But we ask God to inspire in our hearts to make a collective and communal change.  We admit our mistakes collectively. If we are going to save our planet, we must do so collectively as well.

Greta Thunberg concluded her UN speech with this promise: “We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.” Change is coming. And change must be coming here.

We have sinned. We have transgressed. I acknowledge that we have talked the talk on the bimah but not always walked the walk. We waste. We use paper and plastic. We leave lights on and don’t use energy efficient bulbs. We aren’t relying on renewable energy. That is about to change. In the year 5780, our newly constituted Beth El Green Team, will be working to make our sacred space and holy community one that understands and appreciates the importance the holy ground and sacred space of this planet, that when we make a promise of Tikkun Olam, to repair the world, we literally understand our need to save HaOlam, planet Earth.

RainbowInTheSkyThe power of the rainbow at the conclusion of Noah’s Flood was not just the promise and covenant that it represented. The rainbow represents the opportunity and ability to rebuild. It was a reminder that no matter what pain and destruction, metaphorical or literal, that we have caused and that we experienced. We can rebuild this world anew. No matter what the last year was, this year will be better, as long as we put in the work to make it so. Our past doesn’t need to dictate our future. The rainbow is our future. We do not see where it ends. If we put in the work, our potential to save this world is limitless. And our children will lead us. The prophet Isaiah promised (54:13) that children shall be disciples of God and how great will the peace of your children be, v’rav shalom baniyich. Midrash suggests that rather than reading this verse as baniyich, your children, we should read it as boniyech, your builders. Our children will follow God’s path, even if we don’t, and will build a world of Shalom. But Shalom here is not peace. Shalom comes from shalem, meaning whole. The Prophet Isaiah is revealing to us is that it is our children who will fix our past mistakes and transgressions. They will lead us. They are our rainbow. They are our dove with an olive branch. May we plant for them so that there is still a world left for them to repair. May we save the world for them. May they save the world for us. And may our entire planet be inscribed in the Book of Life.  Amen.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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What if we don’t make it?

Last week, 24 hours before Rosh Hashanah, before we entered the new year and the Gates of Heaven, the Gates of redemption, opened, we focused on Moses’ words, noticing as we prepared to enter the covenant — both the covenant that Moses focuses on with the Israelites and the covenant that we re-enter with God each and every year — we did so Atem Nitzavem Hayom, standing still.

This past Shabbat, Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of Return, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is all about transition. We are in a state of limbo. We have been written, but not yet sealed, in the Book of Life. Additionally, our Torah reading focuses on the transition of leadership from Moses to Joshua.

Moses says: “I can no longer be active. Moreover, God said to me ‘You shall not go across the Jordan” (Deut. 31:2). Moses then calls to Joshua and tells him “be strong and resolute” (Deut. 31:7). Chazak v’amatz. These words literally mean be strong and courageous. Midrash HaGadol says that when Moses tells Joshua “Chazak v’Amatz,” what he actually means is be strong in Torah, and to have courage means that one shall not fear, for God is with you.

Soon after, God says to Moses “The time is drawing near for you to die. Call Joshua and present yourselves in the Tent of Meeting” (Deut. 31:14). Midrash explains that when a divine voice called out to Moses and told him that this was his last day on earth, he went from the Levite camp to the Israelite camp and spoke to each person personally. He left nothing unsaid, no word left unspoken.

A week ago, we had been standing still, and now, although we have moved forward, we are stuck in this in-between. We have been written, but not yet sealed. And what if we don’t make it? What if we too don’t get to cross the Jordan? I am not suggesting or wishing that any of us choose to live our lives believing we won’t be alive tomorrow. To do so would make life totally unbearable. But what I am suggesting is that we take for granted that we will be here. We are already placing our bagel orders for break-fast.

But what if we don’t make it? Moses had the opportunity to know ahead of time. The truth is, he knew well in advance. He first got word in Sefer Bamidbar, in Parashat Chukat, after he struck that rock. But he didn’t accept it. He suppressed his fears and anxiety. Only now, once he heard a bat kol, a Heavenly Voice, call out to him did he accept this was reality. And Midrash explains that he didn’t hold anything back. He said what he needed to say.

And let that be a lesson to us all. On Yom HaDin, on Yom Kippur, on Judgement Day, we stand before the Almighty Judge, asking for compassion and forgiveness in the name of Justice. But we do not know what the sentence will be. We do not know if we will cross the Jordan. So let us make sure that we leave no word unsaid. Say what is on our minds, what we’ve been wanted to say for years, to our friends, family, and loved ones. Make sure they know how we feel and what we think.

When Moses tells Joshua, Chazak v’Amatz, maybe he isn’t really talking to Joshua at all. He is projecting. He is talking to himself. He is telling himself to stay strong, to not fear, as he goes on this unknown path. May those be words of inspiration for all of us during this days of repentance. May we all be strong and courageous as we face the unknown. We don’t know what the end result will be, but let us make sure that we leave no word left unsaid.

G’mar Chatima Tova.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Rosh Hashanah 5780: “Avengers Assemble”

The following sermon was delivered on the First Day of Rosh Hashanah 5780 by Rabbi Jesse Olitzky at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey: 

Every summer as a child, I’d go to Camp Grandparents. We would drive the 4 plus hours to the suburbs of Washington DC where my parents would drop off my brother and me at my grandparents’ home for a couple of weeks full of getting spoiled. It was only once I became a parent myself that I realized the importance of these weeks — not just so I could develop a close and special relationship with my grandparents, but also conveniently – and logistically – for Camp Grandparents to take place during that inconvenient time at the end of August when camp is over, but school has not yet started. And so now, as a parent, I appreciate Camp Grandparents more than ever, where at the end of August my own children spend days at their grandparents’ home along with their cousins.

This past summer, with seven kids between the ages of two and nine, it was a packed and exhaustive schedule full of activities, so much so that when a trip was planned to take all of them to Hershey Park,

I was called in for reinforcements, with a strong need for another adult body to play zone parenting defense against this group of kids. At one particular moment in the water park section, we settled on dividing and conquering. We spread out between the corkscrew water slides and the kiddie pool, the big pool and the little slides, the lily pads and the splashpad. And when we came together afterwards, we realized that no one knew where Hannah was. There were three adults, but only six children. My two-and-a -half-year-old daughter had wandered off, with each adult thinking she was with another one.

The panic immediately set in and the screaming of her name began soon after. For approximately ten minutes, all of which seemed like an eternity, Hannah was gone. I found her in the arms of an employee, a first aid staff member, soaking wet, wrapped in a towel. The employee explained that she apparently wandered over to the deep end of the adult pool and with a smile, jumped in.

I asked if a lifeguard brought Hannah to her. She responded with a definitive ‘no.’ With hundreds of kids in the pools and on the water slides, the lifeguards were pulled in too many directions and never even saw her fall in. Apparently, a young mother was wadding in the pool with her infant in her arms and saw this happen from a distance. She bolted over there, scooping my daughter out of the water with her one free hand and handing her to the first aid squad. When I saw Hannah, she was all giggles and smiles, having no idea the ordeal that she had put us through or what she had done. We spent that evening in the emergency room, with Penn State’s Children’s Hospital conveniently located across the street from Hershey Park, making sure she didn’t suffer from secondary drowning. And throughout the evening, she continued to smile and laugh the entire time, like we were just on another amusement park ride.

I asked the employee to introduce me to the young woman who saved Hannah and pulled her out of the pool. But she had left. She said that the woman handed her my child and went back to her family. We walked around to see if she could find her, so I could hug her, and properly thank her for saving my daughter’s life. But she was gone. This stranger saved her life, saved our world, and I don’t even know what she looks like. I do not know her name. I never spoke a single word to her. And yet, she had more of an impact on our family than she’ll ever know, for she changed our destiny in that very moment.

The Talmud teaches that there is nothing more pious than saving a life, and we have no idea the impact of any of our interactions. We have no idea when we become a superhero and have the power to save someone’s life. Ultimately, that is our role in this world — to protect others, as uncomfortable is it sounds. Our role is to honor God. We see God and we find God’s Presence in this world in each other. And so, our responsibility is to protect each other. Of course we protect our loved ones. We would do anything for those that we love.

But that is not what we are taught. We must protect everyone, even the strangers among us. Tractate Sotah teaches about a person who sees a child struggling to swim in the river while he was in the middle of his morning prayers and responded by saying, let me first remove my tallit and tefillin before I save him. As he is unwrapping his tefillin, the child drowns. The Talmud calls this person a “foolish pietist.” There is nothing pious about their actions. There is nothing praiseworthy. But the stranger, who saves the life of the one that they don’t even know, that is to be admired. That is who we strive to be. And sometimes, we don’t even realize the impact of our actions in that moment.

Now Jacob loved Joseph more than all his children… And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so much so that they could not speak a friendly word to him. Joseph became Jacob’s eyes and ears, making sure his siblings followed directions.

Halo acheicha ro’im bish’chem, l’cha v’eshlacheicha aleihem (Gen. 37:13) – Your brothers are pasturing in Shechem, Jacob said to Joseph. Come and I will send you to them. Joseph answered, Hineni. I am here. I am ready. When Joseph reached Shechem, his brothers were not there to be seen. Vayimtza’ehu ish v’hineh to’eh ba’sadeh (Gen. 37:15). He found a man – an ish – wandering in the fields. The man explained Nas’u mizeh ki shamati omrim nelcha dotanah (Gen. 37:17) – They have gone from here. I heard the say they were going to Dothan. And with that single exchanged Joseph changed course. We know what came next. He went down to find his brothers, who first thought about killing him, then threw him in a pit, sold him into slavery, where he ended up in prison, and then eventually rose up to become Pharaoh’s second-in-command, saving the entire region from starvation during famine.

A stranger, someone who Joseph only speaks a handful of words to, has the greatest influence on the path he ends up on. A stranger seemingly so insignificant that he isn’t even given a name in the Torah, has a great impact. The Torah seemingly goes out of its way to help us understand his influence. By not naming him, but simply referring to him as an ish basadeh, a man in the field, we are reminded that it’s not always those closest to us that impact us, not just those who we are on a first name basis with. Sometimes, strangers, those whose names we don’t even know, those who we encounter on our way, are the ones who still influence our destinies. Midrash Tanchuma suggests that this man was the archangel Gabriel, who took the shape of a man. Maybe the strangers that influence our lives are angels. Or maybe it’s a reminder that we all have the ability to be angels for each other.

This past year, The Jewish community in this country lost one of our great cultural influencers, one whose passing went unnoticed by many, and influence not realized by most. Stanley Martin Lieber died last winter. If that is a name you might be familiar with, it’s understandable. You might be more familiar with his, nom de plume, Stan Lee, former comic book writer, editor, creator, and producer, who helped turn the humble and small Marvel Comics into a worldwide Multimedia brand, responsible for creating some of the most iconic superheroes around. [I apologize if I sound like I am “geeking out” a little bit.]

Stan Lee wrote in his memoir that superheroes and comic books became especially popular during WWII, roughly 80 years ago, when the term superhero came into usage. But he noted, after wartime, comics books continued to be popular. He believed that was because the heroes he created were those that readers could look up to, but also relate to. They were superhuman, but still human. They were heroes, but still flawed. As Lee put it: “they weren’t glossy do-gooders who never made mistakes — they were men and women with heart and humanity. Their appeal was undeniable.”

SPIDER-MAN: ™ FAR FROM HOMEAnd maybe that is what has made these superhero movies the highest grossing films of all-time. Not just the blockbuster nature of it all. Not just the team-ups and battle sequences. Not just to see if they return from being snapped to finally defeat Thanos. [And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you need to added “watching the highest grossing movie of all-time” to your new year’s resolution.] What makes these movies so popular — and the comic book stories before them — is that despite superhero powers caused by being bitten by a radioactive spider, or being exposed to gamma radiation, or being injected with a super soldier serum, the human nature of these heroes made each of us feel like we too could be a hero. We too have the power to stand up to evil. We too have the power to help the strangers among us. That’s only if we are willing to. That’s only if we accept our power. Because as Spider-Man was once told, with great power comes great responsibility.

But those with great power, those with the loudest voices, largest soapboxes, and most frantic tweets, are trying to tell us to be afraid of strangers. They are trying to tell us to ignore those who call out to us for help. This administration is doubling down on efforts to say that those who look differently than us, or speak differently than us, or pray differently than us, are people we should be afraid of. The Statue of Liberty declares Emma Lazarus’ poetic words, words that resonate with so many of our own ancestor’s Jewish immigration stories: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddle masses yearning to breathe free.” Yet, the President’s policies suggest we must build walls to keep our distance from strangers. They reinforce xenophobic ideas that we should be scared of those who are different than us, when in reality, we should love those who are different than us.

V’ahavtem et haGer ki Garim heyitem beretz mitzrayim. Love the Stranger for we were once strangers. We are commanded to love the stranger. We are commanded to love those who are different than us. Not just sojourners and migrants. We are commanded to embrace the stranger because we were once strangers. Loving the stranger ultimately means we understand that we have the ability to impact each other. Loving the stranger means actively embracing our ability to make a difference in another’s life. Loving the stranger means understanding that we are all interconnected. We can and must rely on each other.

We must open up and be kind to strangers because we have no idea the impact that that kindness will have on our lives. When Abraham saw three travelers in the distance, he was not fearful that they were approaching him. He did not lock his door. He ran to greet them. He approached them and invited them into his home.

Don’t misunderstand me: Abraham is a terribly flawed person. He casts out part of his family, and almost kills other members of his family. He lies to the King and pretends that his wife is his sister, just to save himself. We see that he is human. We see that he is imperfect. And we also see him going out of his way to be kind to the strangers he encounters.

In quoting the book of Job, Exodus Rabbah tells us that “The stranger should not lodge outside.” Midrash explains that this means that God sees no creature as unfit. The gates of repentance — at this time of year, but also at all times — are always open, all who desire may enter it. Such Midrashic explanation requires that we see each individual as divine, as made in God’s image. It means that we do not see strangers as strange. Instead, we see them as angels.

Abraham did not know that these strangers were angels. They are simply called men. Yet, a single interaction with them changed the course of his life’s journey. These strangers were angels, Malachim, divine messengers. And so too are the strangers among us, those that we don’t know who in some ways, have a greater influence on our lives than those that we do. Our unexpected interactions with them lead us to unexpected consequences.

We can’t control who those angels are in our life. We have no idea what interaction will metaphorically, or literally, save our lives. We just have to be willing to embrace all in our midst. Doing so not only allows for us to encounter our angels, but to be angels for one another, to truly love the stranger.

This requires us to change our mindset. This requires that we tear down the walls that divide us – the literal bigoted walls that are built, but also the symbolic walls that are the reason we avoid strangers. Look around. I am sure you see someone who you don’t know — maybe it’s someone who you’ve never seen before, and maybe it’s someone who you awkwardly and inauthentically smile and nod at, but don’t really know (and of course, you’ve smiled and nodded so many times, you can’t introduce yourself again). Know them. Care about them. They are not in your family. They are not in your social circle. And yet, they matter. And you have the power to make sure they know they matter.

Rabbi Meir taught that there is no greater definition of wickedness than that of the city Sodom, the biblical city that God was keen on destroying. He said that when a person is so wicked, you call them a Sodomite. And yet, the book of Ezekiel explains the sins of the city of Sodom: They were arrogant. They did not care about others and were only concerned with themselves and their own needs. If we do not seek to embrace the kindness of strangers, if we do not seek to be those strangers and exude kindness, then we all become Sodomites. Then we destroy our society. Look at what we’ve become.

Maybe Stan Lee was a hidden biblical scholar. After all, he was born in Manhattan to Jewish Romanian Immigrants who, at the turn of the 20th century, set out to be heroes themselves, to provide a better life for their family. Maybe his daily afternoon learning in cheyder as a child informed his understanding of heroes. For they are just like the Bible’s depiction of angels. They appear in the everyday as human and flawed. But in masked disguise, they are larger than life. In the original comics, these heroes make sure to stick to their aliases and alter egos.

They go to great lengths to make sure that the world doesn’t find out who the man – or woman – is behind the mask, never conflating the ordinary with the extraordinary. They do not seek to take credit or be celebrated. They act, because how could they not. Because they understood their responsibility. They understood exactly what the Talmud understood, that even without a magic hammer or a mechanical suit of armor, to save a single life is to save the world. They understood that they are divine messengers, for we are all divine messengers. We are all heroes. We are all angels.

To the woman whom I’ve never met who saved my daughter’s life at Hershey Park: Thank you. To the woman who did not wait around to be celebrated or rewarded, and yet, did not flinch when she saw a young child in need of her help, thank you. I don’t know who this woman is, but I am sure, like each of us, she is far from perfect.

For all I know, she could be sitting in a pew somewhere similar to here right now, acknowledging her own failures and misdeeds, hoping for a clean slate to be written and sealed in the Book of Life for the year to come. Yet, none of that stopped her from being our hero, from being our angel.

We spend these Days of Awe hoping to change. But we end up spending so much time focusing on what we’ve done wrong, on our mistakes, how we have disappointed others, and how we’ve disappointed ourselves, that we ignore that we’ve still been heroes this past year. You may not even realize, because we never do. We don’t get to read ahead in life like we do in Torah; we don’t know what becomes of the Josephs that we meet after a single interaction. But we have been heroes without even realizing. Appreciate your power and embrace your power.

Now, in the new year, as we examine our souls and examine ourselves, let us use our power to still make a difference in the life of the strangers among us. Because with great power, comes great responsibility. Shana Tova.


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