Monthly Archives: December 2019

But the Essential Lesson is to Not Live in Fear

I want to share the text of a letter our congregation received this week from SOMA Action, a local progressive advocacy group in South Orange-Maplewood that we often partner with:

Dear Rabbi Olitzky and the Beth El Community, our friends and neighbors, 

During this time of increased anti-semitism, and violence directed at Jews in our state, SOMA Action stands with our neighbors and friends in renouncing hate and violence.   We thank your congregation for always being welcoming, and please know we stand with you in denouncing hate crimes against all peoples including those motivated by anti-semitism. 


The Board and Chairs of SOMA Action


Parashat Vayishlach begins with Jacob’s fear:

Vayira Yaakov me’od v’yeitzer lo. And Jacob was greatly frightened and distressed. He was scared and anxious (Gen. 32:8).

Jacob responded by praying to God:

Hatzileini Nah miyad Achi miyah Esav ki Yarei Anochi oto pen-yavo v’hikani em al-banim. Save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, because I am fearful and I am scared, that he will come and strike me down — that he will hurt me — me, my children, and the mother of my children alike (Gen. 32:12)

Midrash HaGadol, a compilation of aggadic midrashim by Rabbi Adani of 14th century Yemen, shares the midrash of Jacob’s wives seeing his fear. Together, the four of them ask, “if you were scared, then why did we go on this journey? If you were scared, then why did we ever leave our father’s home?” They are essentially saying, we wouldn’t been safer if we stayed inside, if we never left our home.

Fear is real. In this biblical narrative, Jacob saw his brother who held a grudge towards him, who presumably sought revenge, approaching with 400 men. Jacob assumed that Esau hated him, and was fearful for his own safety. I feel for Jacob. And lately, I’ve felt like Jacob.

ap_19345465469150Just last week, another deadly antisemitic attack occurred in this country, this one hitting especially close to home, taking place a short drive away in Jersey City. Jersey City is the second largest city in our state, with over a quarter of a million residents. It is a city that is home to many congregants, and a city that used to be home to others. It’s the natural place where so many in our community move to after leaving New York City, a stop along the way before settling in South Orange-Maplewood, and similarly, it has become the place where so many have moved to after downsizing and leaving SOMA, but close enough that they can remain a part of our Jewish community.

And I admit, I am scared, even in a place where I know I shouldn’t be, even in a community that celebrates diversity. This is a community where I’ve always felt comfortable wearing a kippah around town; I’m just as comfortable doing so in the halls of South Orange Middle School as I am at our local Jewish Day School, Golda Och Academy; I’m just as comfortable doing so strolling down the aisles of the local Stop & Shop as I am when I shop at Aron’s Kosher Market; I am just as comfortable wearing a kippah on my head when I sit on the lawn at Memorial Park during Maplewoodstock as I am when I attend morning minyan. But comfort and reassurance doesn’t necessarily change fear.

The Kli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, the 17th century rabbi of Prague, wonders how it is that Jacob could even be scared. He ponders: what reason does Jacob have to be fearful? God already promised to protect him – first, in his vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder to the Heavens, and second, when he left his father-in-law Laban’s home.

The Kli Yakar is essentially wondering how it is possible that even when God reassures Jacob that he will be safe, that he is still fearful for his safety. But that is how we all feel. And that is what we are going through. We should feel safe in our community, but are still fearful.

Vayishlach continues to tell us that when Jacob was left alone, he wrestled with a man until dawn. Only at daybreak did he realize that the man he was wrestlign was in fact an angel, and the angel blessed Jacob, changing his name to Israel.

Rashbam, the 12th century French Torah commentator, says this angel was there to make sure he did not run and made sure he did not hide. This angel remained with him to make sure no harm would come upon him. This angel is essentially there to make sure he doesn’t follow the advice that his wives recommend in the midrash. This angel makes sure he does not live his life in fear.

I would even suggest that Jacob was wrestling with himself, that he was his own angel. The angel was his own bravery, his own courage, that helped him not live in fear. Either way, the message is clear: an angel watching over him, allowed him to feel safe, because he was safe.

As news unfolded last week about this deadly antisemitic attack, the first calls I received were from those outside of the Jewish community – neighbors, and neighboring houses of worship, advocacy groups, and elected officials — asking what they could do to be there for the Jewish community, what they could do to help us feel safer, what they could do to be our angels.

And in a way, simply by making such an offer, it was clear already that they are.

The answer to not living in fear, in this very scary world, is to be angels for each other – the stand up for each other — and to stand with each other — to protect each other, so that we know we are not alone. We are angels for each other because we realize that hate towards anyone is really hate towards everyone. And we are angels for each other because that is ultimately what God wants for us and from us, to understand that we all have the power to embrace each other just as Jacob and Esau ultimately do, with love.

We sit with our sorrow. And we are understandably scared. But let us sit with our angels among us and around us. And may we be angels to each other. The well-known words of Rabbi Nachman of Braslav, words that we often sing, remind us:

 Kol HaOlam Kulu, Gesher Tzar Meod, V’haIkar, Lo Lefached Klal. The whole world is a very narrow bridge. But the essence and essential lesson is to not live in fear.

He is not teaching that the world is narrow, meaning small. Rather, the world is a very narrow bridge. I imagine it to be like a small and tight rope bridge, swinging over a canyon, with each step we take, the wood creaks, and we hope the bridge won’t snap. And yet, the most important lesson is that we do not fear. Because that is not how to live our lives. Instead we strive to be angels for each other, and angels for ourselves. May we learn from — and live by — this important lesson.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Silence Equals Complacency

In Parashat Vayishlach, we find the disturbing narrative of the rape of Dinah. Dina, the only of Jacob’s daughters mentioned or acknowledged in the text, doesn’t speak a single word of scripture. Yet, when Shechem son of Hamor sees her beauty he “took her and lay with her by force” (Gen. 34:2). The absence of Dinah’s voice is most troubling.

The power of the #MeToo movement is the courage and bravery of women to speak up and share their stories as victims of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse, as difficult as it may be. And by doing so, they reaffirmed for each other that they were not alone in taking this stand. But as Dr. Ellen Frankel points out in her own modern commentary, Dinah spoke up, but she was ignored. Speaking for Dinah, she writes: “when I was raped, my cries went unrecorded. When my brothers negotiated with Hamor for my hand, my wishes were not considered.”

Just as troubling, if not more so, was Jacob’s silence upon hearing what happened (Gen. 34:5). His silence is deafening. He does not speak up to defend Dinah or to call out Shechem and hold him liable. He does not condemn such actions publicly, or even privately, and most alarming, he is not there for his daughter to be a source of comfort for her. In this narrative, Jacob – and his silence – is also responsible.

We cannot just ask victims to speak up for themselves. We must call on all in society, to build a society that doesn’t tolerate discrimination, abuse, or assault of any kind. We cannot only call out the perpetrators like Shechem. We must also hold accountable the silence of the Jacobs in society. As the Talmud (Yevamot 88a) teaches, “silences is tantamount to consent.”

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Turning Fixed Worship into Spontaneous Spiritual Moments

V’yachalom v’hineh sulam mutzav artza v’roho magi’ah hashamayhma v’hineh malachei Elohim olim v’yordim bo. [Jacob] had a dream, a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. (Gen. 28:12)

Rabbinic commentators ask: What does it mean that angels were going up and down, rather than going down and up?! Shouldn’t it be that they were going down first, coming down from the Heavens?

Rashbam, the 12th century French Torah commentator, suggests that this is how we speak. We say go up and down a ladder, even if the angels in reality, were going down and up. His grandfather, Rashi, though was focused on taking the text literally and how it could mean that angels were ascending first. He concludes that angels actually accompanied Jacob on his journey. They ensured he was safe. Those angels ascended the ladder while the angels of Heaven descended the ladder and entered earth.

But Midrash also suggests that Jacob saw so much more than just a ladder with angels ascending and descending. Genesis Rabbah interprets the ladder to actually be the ramp that one used to enter the Holy Temple, the Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem 2000+ years ago. And Midrash adds that the image of the angels going up and down this ladder were actually visions of the Kohanim, the priests, entering the Temple to offer sacrifices to God.

The point this midrash is trying to make is one of connecting the biblical experience and interaction with God to our own fixed practices of worship. Jacob arises from his dream, realizing that God was present, and declares that “God was in this place and I did not know it.” Often, we go through the routine, we say the liturgy of our prayer service without wrestling with God, without finding God in that prayer experience, in that space. We daven, but we don’t pray. Our goal according to midrash, is to have our fixed worship experiences be like our spontaneous prophetic dreams, to see angels among us, to see each other as angels. Our goal is to find God in our sanctuaries, and know it.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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We Should All Strive to be ‘Simple’

Parashat Toldot introduces the twins Jacob and Esau as polar opposites. The text describes Esau as:

Ish Yode’ah Tza’id, Ish Sadeh; a man who knew game, a man of the field (Gen. 25:27)

Jacob was described as the opposite:

Ish Tam, Yoshev Ohalim; a simple man who dwelt in tents (Ibid)

If Esau is the one who loved the outdoors, the Jacob, the polar opposite, would be described as the biblical equivalent of a couch potato. Yet, rabbinic tradition couldn’t be satisfied with that. If we had our choice, wouldn’t we want to be a descendant of the strong and powerful hunter, especially considering how deceptive Jacob seems later on in the Torah portion, based on a basic reading of the text?

Therefore, our rabbis reinterpret what it means that he dwelt in tents. They understand these tents to actually be houses of study — and that Jacob was a Torah scholar. Of course, this interpretation makes little sense from a chronological perspective, since the Israelites wouldn’t receive the Torah for another 450+ years in the biblical narrative. But if we are descendants of Jacob, then let us be descendants of a great Torah scholar. In fact, midrash even describes him as the most focused of all Torah scholars, one who learned from everyone and taught everyone. He did not learn in only one Beit Midrash, house of study. Rather, he learned in many. That is why he was described as Yoshev Ohalim, one who dwelt in many tents.

Such rabbinic reinterpretation doesn’t explain him being called an Ish Tam though. Noah, who was described as a righteous person is also referred to as an Ish Tzaddik Tammim (Gen. 6:9). Some translate this verse to suggest that Noah was blameless in his generation, but I would suggest that like Jacob, he was a simple person. After all, of the four stereotypical children that appear in the Passover Haggadah, the simple one is also called a Tam. This child says very little. Maybe that is also the lesson that we are meant to take away from Jacob — a rabbinic interpretation of someone who says little, but studies much Torah.

Mishnah Avot teaches:

Make Torah study a regular part of your life. Say little and do much (Avot 1:15)

We talk a lot. I have bookshelves full of sacred texts of rabbinic debate, texts of our tradition that emphasize this point, where rabbis are talking at each other, rather than to each other. In our own world, we talk too much as well — we go on social media tirades, with long tweet threads. We sometimes speak just to speak, adding hot air. We talk a lot, and listen very little. And for many of us, even when we listen, we are only patiently waiting for someone to be done speaking, so that we can continue to speak again. Maybe we would all be better off to make Torah study a part of our lives so that we say little and do much. We watch our words and choose our words carefully. Words have impact and do serious damage. We should strive to make these deeds our own. For actions speak much louder than words.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


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