Monthly Archives: January 2020

Talking to God on a First-Name Basis

We find at the beginning of Exodus, chapter six:

“God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am Adonai – YHVH, I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by my name YHVH, but I did establish my covenant with them” (Ex. 6:2-4)

Previously, when Moses first encountered God at the burning bush, Moses asked God, “when I come to the Israelites and tell them God sent me, they will ask what is God’s name – what should I tell them?” There, God says, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – I am that which I am, I will be what I will be.” Some biblical scholars suggest that this is a hint at the Tetragrammaton, at YHVH, God’s name that we no longer pronounce. They suggest that Tetragrammaton was taken from the root of ‘to be’ –  Hovah. Such a name and suggestion understands a God that was, is, and will be.

But such an idea that God Moses knows God – Yada – differently than Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also important for us to appreciate. While we have a shared covenant as humanity with the Divine, we each have unique and individual intimate relationships with God. Your path is different than mine; mine is different than someone else’s. You do not need to fit in a box as you wrestle with God. You may not find God in that burning bush.

Tradition tells us that God has an infinite number of names. This is because we call God different things at different times. In fact, one of the suggestions as to why Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew God as El Shaddai was because Shaddai means ‘breast.’ God nursed the People of Israel, and monotheism in general, during its stages of infancy. But this also means that, as is the case with intimate relationships, to know God, we each must find a different name for God.

Don’t settle for what someone else tells you what to believe. Just because God was known by one name to your ancestors, you may wrestle, connect with, and come to understand God by a totally different name, and have a totally different relationship with God. Just be open to that. For just as God is what God is, we are who we are. And in each of us, we too find God.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Standing Up to Tyrants Doesn’t Always Mean Being Moses

OlitzkysAndGovMurphyMy wife and I had the privilege of spending time with Governor Phil Murphy and First Lady Tammy Murphy at the Governor’s Mansion, Drumthwacket, last week. Understanding how busy faith leaders are in December, the Governor and First Lady decided to invite faith leaders to join them in January, to kick off the new year in faith. Both of them referenced the antisemitic deadly attack in Jersey City, where a faith community – our faith community – was violently attacked. They both declared that an attack on one faith is an attack on all faiths. Such sentiment coming for the Governor would be meaningful in a room full of Jews. But it was especially meaningful in this space, with maybe a dozen Jewish clergy among Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, AME, Baptist, Protestant, and Catholic clergy. Looking at the diversity of that room, diversity that proudly looks like our state looks, such a sentiment, that an attack on one faith community is an attack on all faith communities, holds greater weight and significance.

At the beginning of the book of Exodus, we learn:

The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was name Shifra and the other Puah, saying ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool. If it is a boy, kill him. If it is a girl, let her live.’ The Midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live (Ex. 1:15-16).

This act of the midwives is not Moses being told by God to bang on the doors of Pharaoh’s palace and declare “let my people go.” This is something on a much smaller level, and yet, arguably, it is an act that had a greater impact. These are two women who answered to Pharaoh and yet, felt so uncomfortable by Pharaoh’s decree that they chose to ignore it and do the opposite of what he commanded.

Clearly this moment is supposed to be significant. In a text where women’s voices aren’t heard nearly enough, the simple fact that these two women are named lets us know how important this moment is. But we don’t hear from these two women again, so rabbinic tradition identifies them as someone else.

We learn in Sotah 11b:

Rav and Shmuel disagree as to the proper interpretation of this verse. One says that these midwives were a woman and her daughter, and one says that they were a daughter-in-law and her mother-in-law. According to the one who says that they were a woman and her daughter, the women were Yochebed, the mother of Moses and Aaron, and her daughter, Miriam. And according to the one who says that they were a daughter-in-law and her mother-in-law, the verse is referring to Yochebed and her daughter-in-law Elisheva, the wife of Aaron.

The Talmud understands the incredible impact these two women have on saving the Jewish people. They must be important, so they couldn’t just be two random women. So they must be Yocheved and Miriam, or even Yocheved and Elisheva. They understood that these women were important, so they made them important biblical figures.

But I’d much rather see it that Shifra and Puah weren’t Yocheved and Miriam. They were Shifra and Puah. They did not have to be famous to resist. Their acts of resistance in some ways carry more weight because they weren’t famous. This is an act of everyday resistance. Furthermore, there is a disagreement as to what it means that they are Hebrew midwives. Does this adjective refer to the women themselves, that they were Hebrew, or to the women that they worked with, meaning that they were midwives for the Hebrew women? The text seems to clarify that these were Egyptian women. When Pharaoh asked them why they let the babies live, they respond:

Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are like wild animals. Before the midwife could come to them, they have already given birth (Ex. 1:19).

Clearly, Hebrew women wouldn’t talk about themselves in such a manner. We therefore, can assume that these midwives were Egyptian, and that this decree to kill Hebrew children means nothing to them personally. Their own families are safe. The new Pharaoh’s view towards the Israelites doesn’t effect them directly. But they understand that of course it effects them. And they resist, they step up, because they understand that apathy and ambivalence concerning Pharaoh’s harsh decrees towards the Israelites only invites eventual harsh decrees towards them as well. I would expect the Hebrew midwives, those that are Hebrew, the Yocheveds and MIriams of the world to resist. But the impact is far greater and significant when we read that Shifra and Puah were Egyptian and they resisted.

Let this be a reminder to all of us. We do not need to be Moses banging down Pharaoh’s door. But each of us, in our own ways, have the power, opportunity, obligation and responsibility to resist tyranny whenever it comes rearing its ugly head. May we all have the courage of Shifra and Puah, to refuse to do something that we know is immoral and unethical, no matter who commands us to do so. May we learn from their examples.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What Will Your Legacy Be?

Canaan was a terrible place for Joseph. It was the last place he’d ever want to go to. That was where he was bullied by his brothers. That was where he was thrown into a pit. That was where he was sold into slavery. Yet, that is exactly what Joseph wants. At the very end of Parashat Vayehi, during the concluding verses of the book of Genesis, Joseph asks his brothers:

So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, ‘when God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here’ (Gen. 50:25).

Joseph lived his best life in Egypt. It was there that he was viceroy. It was there that his wife and children knew as home. It was there that he saved civilization from famine, so much so that he should be celebrated. A federal holiday in Egypt should be named for him. Students should be off from school. Office buildings should be closed. Egypt is where Joseph was successful. And yet, he still asks his family to take him out of Egypt one day.

Bereishet Rabbah teaches that Joseph stipulated specifically that Joseph’s brothers should bring Joseph bones back to Shechem because that was the place where he was sold into slavery. Midrash tells an allegory:

When an individual went into his basement, his wine cellar and saw two men down there who broke open a barrel and drank of its contents, the owner did not scold them. He simply said, “I ask only one thing of you: when you finish, put the barrel back where it belongs.”

The image is one that suggests no matter how much Joseph felt he fit in in Egypt, that was not where he belonged. That was not where the wine barrel was meant to be stored.

But I think Joseph’s message is a greater one: he does not want to be forgotten. He saved the region from famine, and yet,  at the beginning of the book of Exodus, there is already a new Pharaoh that rises up that does not know Joseph.

Joseph realizes that his legacy is not in Egypt. But his legacy isn’t in Canaan either. He does not wish to return there because of his relationship with the Promised Land. Rather, he wishes to return there because that is where his family will eventually be going.  His legacy is with his family. And he is asking them to take him with them, to remember him..

We think our legacies are in the work that we do, in the money we make, the job titles we hold, or the impact we have in our professional lives. But ultimately, we will not be remembered not for our professional work. We will be remembered in the lives of those we are closest to, those that we touch the most – our family, friends, and community. We turn to our loved ones and ask them to carry our bones with them, to carry us with them, so that long after we leave this world, our legacy lives on within them.

It is no where we are, but who we are with that matters most. Let us remember that, and let us always surround ourselves with our loved ones who will take us with them, no matter where they go, even long after we’ve left this world.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized


Bereshit Rabbah, the midrashic commentary on Genesis, asks a question concerning the building of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, that eventually gets built at the end of the book of Exodus. Included among the many materials that are listed as needed to build this portable sanctuary is cedar wood and the rabbis try to clarify where that cedar wood came from since it was nowhere to be found in the wilderness of the desert. The rabbis are similarly perplexed as to why Jacob would stop in Beer Sheva on his way to reunite with his son Joseph in Egypt (Gen. 46:1). Midrash concludes that Jacob stopped in Beer Sheva and cut down the cedar trees that Abraham had planted there generations before, so that the Children of Israel could bring that cedar wood with them 400+ years later when they left Egypt and wandered in the wilderness, and eventually use it to build their Portable Sanctuary to God. 

A week ago, at the hanukiyah lighting at Rabbi Rottenberg’s home in Monsey, a man drove 35 miles from New York City to this Hasidic enclave, and entered the parsonage, attached to the synagogue, pulled out a machete, and began slashing community members. This highlighted a week of violent antisemitic attacks in the New York area on the Jewish community during Hanukkah. At a time when the Jewish community was following their obligation to literally add light to the darkness, the darkness that we were experiencing was almost unbearable.  And yet, our mission, is to continue to add light, long after we are done lighting our menorahs. That is the only way we rid the world of this darkness. That is the only way we end such violent hate towards Jews.

There was nothing noticeably “Jewish” about Joseph; he wore Pharaoh’s clothes and jewelry, and even took on the Egyptian name Tzafnat Paneach. He hid his identity to ensure his safety and success. Yet Jacob brings the cedars of Beer Sheva with him. He brings with him that which his ancestors planted, preparing to build a place to publicly show his faith and idenity. While Joseph hid himself to everyone, including his brothers, Jacob proudly brought his Jewish identity with him.

Like Jacob, we carry the weight, burden, and history of our ancestors who have come before us. We carry the weight of those who fought, fled, hid, and in many cases died, because they were Jewish. We are the branches of the roots that they planted. We are their cedars, and to paraphrase the words of Psalm 92, we are strong cedars because of their righteous actions. The midrash clarifies that the past was meant to build the future, that Jacob went to Egypt with the intent of continuing his relationship to God and the Jewish people. He refused to ever hide who he was or what he believed.

As my friend Seffi Kogen, Global Director of Young Leadership at AJC, writes: “we will not win [against hate] by guarding our identity, but by celebrating it. We will win not by hiding who we are, but by trumpeting it, and by being embraced by our friends in other communities.”

We defeat hate by using the metaphorical strong cedars that we carry with us, the strength of our ancestors, to build our sanctuaries, to publicly display our Judaism and to publicly express our Judaism. We do not hide who we are like Joseph did. Instead we celebrate who we are like Jacob did, and bring our Judaism with us wherever we are and wherever we go.

With that in mind, I invite you to join members of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest community and surrounding Jewish communities tomorrow to participate in the No Hate – No Fear Solidarity March against Antisemitsm. Organized by UJA Federation of New York, the Anti-Defamation League, AJC, Torah Trumps Hate, and other co-sponsoring organizations, this March will meet at Foley Square at 11:00am on Sunday, January 5 and march across the Brooklyn Bridge to Columbia Park.

Additionally, these organizations are planning a #JewishandProud day on Monday, January 6, encouraging community members to publicly show their Jewish pride. We invite you on Monday to wear your kippah in public, wear a Star of David, a Hebrew t-shirt, or another identifiable Jewish item. 

For like Jacob, we carry with us the strong cedars of our ancestors. And like Jacob we will build our sanctuaries of the future. We will not hide who we are. We declare today and always, we are Jewish and Proud.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized