Monthly Archives: February 2020

Why We Must Be Reminded to Care for the Stranger

In the middle of Parashat Mishpatim, a Torah portion full of laws, we find arguably the most important law in the Torah. These laws, given immediately after revelation at Sinai, after the Ten Commandments, are meant to be a guide to how to build a society. These mitzvot, commandments, are bein adam l’chavero, are about interpersonal relationships. They are about how we treat our fellow.

And right in the middle of these laws we find “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9). The commandment to love, welcome, support, and not oppress the stranger appears more times than any other commandment in the Torah – more than observance of the Sabbath, observance of dietary laws, or even belief in God. One can easily deduce how important it is based on how often the commandment is mentioned.

Yet, I am actually perplexed that it is mentioned here at all. The Israelites crossed a split sea, leaving behind 400 years of being a stranger in a strange land, only two Torah portions ago. How could they have already forgotten to not oppress the stranger? How could they have already forgotten that they themselves were once strangers?

I believe it is not that they forgot, but rather that they needed to be reminded, because human instinct teaches us the opposite. After experiencing oppression, human instinct is to oppress another, lest we become oppressed again. Many who are guilty of assault, violence, and bullying were themselves once victims of such acts and as long as one is the oppressor, they are not the oppressed. The Israelites needed to be reminded to not oppress the stranger out of concern that they would to ensure that they themselves didn’t become oppressed.

But if we only think about ourselves, then we fail – we fail at life and fail as God’s partners in creating this world. Our lives are intertwined. Just as we expect allies to stand with us in oppression, then we must stand with others. We must be reminded to do so. We must be reminded because we were once oppressed, we were once strangers – and how easily we could become strangers again.

Let us take inspiration from the repetition of this command, from the importance of this command. Let it define us as Jews and let it inspire us in how we act.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Trying to Make Our Way Up the Mountain

In preparation for revelation at Mount Sinai, the Torah tells us:

Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain (Ex. 19:17).

The Hebrew for “the foot of the mountain,” tachtit haHar, literally means underneath the mountain. Midrash suggests that the Israelites were actually underneath the mountain as God revealed the Torah, suggesting that God held Sinai up over the Israelites heads and essentially said, you are not obligated to enter this covenant, but this mountain that I’m holding is quite heavy and I may drop it at any time.

I appreciate though the concept that the Israelites were at the foot of the mountain, at the bottom. Jewish tradition teaches that all Jewish souls, of past, present, and future were at Sinai. Each and every time we remove the Torah from the ark, we are taught that we re-experiencing revelation. Our souls were all there, so we all remember what the experience was like. But even each time we re-experience it, we are again at the bottom of the mountain. Moses remains atop Sinai; we are constantly trying to make our way up the mountain.

My father, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, tells a story of his first trip to Israel as a teenager. His group leader, Rabbi Lee Diamond, z”l, took the entire group for a hike up what was believed to be Mount Sinai, in the Sinai Peninsula, now a part of Egypt, but then, a part of Israel. 3/4 of the way up the mountain, the guide stopped. No one understood why they stopped. They had been hiking in the heat for hours. He simply said, “you are not yet ready to reach the top.” He turned around and began hiking down. The entire group followed him in silence.

We are constantly trying to make our way up the mountain, to be closer to God, to experience personal revelation. And yet, time and time again, we find ourselves at the foot of the mountain. But we keep trying to reach the top of Sinai. We keep trying to connect to God. We may not be ready to reach the mountain top just yet, but eventually, we will get there.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Hold Each Other Up

After the sea has been split, and the Israelites have crossed, and they have finally been freed from bondage, after they celebrate with song and dance, and with timbrel in hand, Parashat Beshallach concludes with Amalek fighting with the children of Israel. Moses tells Joshua, then still the military leader of the Israelites, to prepare for battle. As Joshua led the Israelites into battle, Moses, followed by his brother Aaron, and his brother-in-law Hur, went atop a hill to watch the battle play out. The Torah tells us that whenever Moses held his hands up to the Heavens, the Israelites prevailed, but whenever he let his hands down, Amalek prevailed. His hands grew heavy, so Aaron and Hur, one on each side, held his hands up (Ex. 17:12) and they remained up until sun set and the Israelites prevailed.

Without getting on a tangent about the role Moses’ hands played in military victories, I want to focus on the role that Aaron and Hur played. Bechor Shor suggests that the Israelites would see Moses’ hands fall, see that he got tired, so they became tired.

Yet, when Moses’ hands were heavy, those to the left and right of him, lifted him up. That is the power of community and that our responsibility as we take care of each other: to lift each other up.

We read in Berachot 32b a Baraita that teaches: “there are four areas that require strength – the study of Torah, doing good deeds, prayer, and having a good character.” The rabbis are talking about Torah study and prayer and its difficulty, yet it seems odd that they begin to introduce why helping others and doing the right thing, both maasim tovim, good deeds, and derech eretz, having a good character, requires strength. These should be easy tasks. Yet, the rabbis acknowledge that going out of our way to help others before we help ourselves also takes strength and courage. Our instinct is to care for our own well-being. It takes strength of mind and spirit to think of others. Later in Mishnah Avot (4:1), we learn: “Who is strong? One who conquers our own evil.” Our yetzer harah, our evil inclination, is when only look out for ourselves. But true strength, is helping another. True strength is lifting each other up, supporting each other. What the Talmud is also then telling us is that those who only look out for themselves and ignore the welfare of others are weak. Strength comes from understanding that we are all interconnected, and we are stronger when we support each other, and lift each other up. We are all beams that take on weight. If you remove anyone of us, the building crumbles. But the more of us that hold each other up, the stronger we all become.

Moses is only strong because Aaron and Hur are by his side. And that is our ultimate lesson. To stay by each other’s sides. If we go at it alone, then we fail. But if we go at it together, then we will prevail, and feel like we can do just about anything, even defeat Amalek in our midst.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Be the Author of Your Own Exodus Story

Every previous plague impacted the Egyptians, but not the Israelites. When the Nile was turned to blood, magically the Israelites’ water was still pure, like they had a Divine Brita filter. The pestilence didn’t impact any of the Israelites’ crops. Their cattle remained healthy while the Egyptians’ cattle were diseased. And the Torah notes that the darkness of the ninth plague was so extreme that the Egyptians were unable to see right in front of them. They had to stop in their tracks. But somehow, the Israelites had light.

Yet, things change with the tenth plague. Prior to the tenth plague, we are told that the Israelites must take the blood of the pascal sacrifice, dip hyssop leaves in that blood, and spread that blood on their lintel and their doorposts. Torah suggests this is so the Malach HaMavet, the angel of death, or more specifically and exactly, God’s very self, would know which home is an Israelite home and which home is an Egyptian home and be able to decipher between the two.

But that makes no sense. It makes no sense when we see God as an omnipotent and omniscient Divine being. God should know who is an Israelite and who is not and have the power to prevent harm towards those God wishes to protect. That is what God did for the first nine plagues. It should be no different with the tenth plague.

So why all of a sudden is there a need to put these markers on the doorposts? They weren’t for sign for God. They were a sign for the Israelites. This wasn’t about protecting them from the tenth plague as much as the blood on the doorpost was about preparing them for what comes next: the exodus. After being enslaved for four hundred years, giving up on calling out and crying out to God, and questioning Moses’ leadership, they needed to buy-in to the exodus that was about to take place. But even more so, they needed to learn that they must work towards their own justice. They couldn’t just sit around passively and wait for justice to be served. They needed to be active participants in their own fight for justice, in their own fight for freedom. When the Torah tells us “Justice, Justice, You Shall Pursue” ( Deut. 16:20), it does not say “sit around and wait for just to happen.” It demands that we are active participants. We need to be the authors of our own stories, instead of having our stories written for us. We must put the blood on our doorposts. We must take on our role and responsibility as God’s partners in this covenant.  We are the change we seek in this world. Be active and not passive. Only then, can we write our own exodus experience. Only then, can we leave Mitzrayim, the narrow places that enslave us.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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