Category Archives: Holidays

On The Eighth Night of Chanukah

The following message was shared on the final night of Chanukah with the Congregation Beth El community:


Tonight, as we celebrate the final night of Chanukah, we’ll admire the full illumination of the chanukiyah, the Chanukah menorah. Every candle will be lit, every flame will be burning bright. Lighting the menorah to its full brilliance is joyful, even though we know it means that the conclusion of the holiday is near.

The uniqueness of the commandment to kindle the lights of the menorah is the requirement to first light the shamash, the helper candle, and to use that candle to light others. It is an acknowledgement that sometimes we cannot create light on our own. We depend on others to help us see the light; to help us be the light. 

That is the essence of community. The beauty of Beth El is our obligation, responsibility, and opportunity to be the light for one another. We are there as the shamash to help you find light during times of grief and mourning, and we are there to help spread your light during celebration. Our community can also serve as sliver of light in a sometimes dark world, standing up for each other — and with each other — in the face of adversity. 

As powerful as a single candle in the darkness is on that first night of Chanukah, it pales in comparison to the power of the fully lit menorah tonight. The light of a single flame is increased by the other candles of the menorah. So too, our light — our own unique light as individuals — has the power to light up the darkness. But our own light is increased when surrounded by the light of others.

We find that light through learning, and we find that light through witnessing our children learn. We spread that light through prayer, and we find that light through activism. We light up each other as we build community together. 

As we watch the candles slowly burn this evening, let us be inspired by the power of the light of a full menorah. Let us remember the power of being unified, of coming together, of being there for one another and knowing that others will be there for us. May the lights of the menorah inspire us to be that light for each other, and may we always find that light in our community.

Chag Urim Sameach!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky 

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We’ve Been Down this Hole Before

You can’t go to the midnight opening showing of Episode VIII without understanding the seven Star Wars movies that have come before it. Similarly, as amazing as the events of Parashat Mikketz are, you can’t truly appreciate them without understanding them in relation to Parashat Vayeshev
In Parashat Vayeshev, Joseph’s brothers, out of jealousy and hatred towards him, throw him into a pit. They literally have a picnic as they debate what his destiny should be. The compromise is selling him into slavery, but his seemingly hopeless future begins in a pit. It is as literal as it is metaphoric. The Torah says:

“And they took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty. There was no water in it.” (Genesis 37:24) 

The rabbis believed that no word in the Torah was superfluous. So then why the need to say both? If we know the pit was empty, then why also stipulate that there was no water in it? Rashi tries to clarify and says there were snakes and scorpions in the pit, which of course there’s no justification for, and makes no sense if the Torah already said the pit was empty. I believe that calling the pit empty was a reflection of how Joseph felt at that moment. He felt empty, alone, lost, and by himself, with no one and nothing to guide him. In Mesechet Taanit, the Talmud refers to Torah as water. Our commentators thus suggest that “there was no water in it” means that Joseph was in an empty pit, without Torah. He did not have the ethics and values to guide him and he did not know what to do next. He was stuck in a hole and there was nobody there to help him out.

Yet, after all of that, what happens in Parashat Mikketz is really miraculous. After being abandoned by his brothers, after being framed by Potiphar’s wife, after being forgotten in prison by those that he helped save, Joseph is called upon to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. I believe what he does next is not just out of fear of Pharaoh or a sense of obligation to do what Pharaoh asks. Joseph doesn’t just interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Joseph ends up saving an entire population from famine, from food insecurity. He was in that empty pit – literally – and lost – metaphorically – and he turns around and is able to save everyone. When Pharaoh, and all of Egypt, are lost and similarly in their own empty pit, Joseph knows that experience and is able to help them out. 

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite shows, The West Wing, which I encourage binge watching on a regular basis. If you watch it enough, you might even forget for a moment about the current realities of our society and government. I’m not sure if this story originates from The West Wing, but even if not, it is retold in a way that only Aaron Sorkin is able to do. In season two, Josh Lyman, Deputy Chief of Staff, is dealing with PTSD, following being shot in an assassination attempt on the President at the end of season one. He is dealing with serious trauma in his life. Leo McGarry, the White House Chief of Staff, who is a recovering addict, and has his own share of dealing with personal trauma, shares this story with his colleague: 

This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.'”

Joseph had been down that hole of hopelessness. When he sees Pharaoh and Egypt stuck in the same hole, he doesn’t take charge and action because he sees an opportunity for his dreams to be fulfilled, for him to rise in power and prominence. He does so because he was in that hole before, empty and devoid of the values to guide us on our path, and he knew what it felt like, so he jumped in to help Egypt out of that hole. 

The essence of Chanukah, of placing the light of our chanukiyot in our windows, is a powerful message. We are actually prohibited from using that light to benefit us. Shabbat candles had a practical purpose. You lit candles as it went dark, and you used that light to light up the room, the dinner table, etc. You can read by the candle light, and when the candles burn out, it is dark and time for bed. But the Talmud stipulates that you can’t use the light of the Chanukah candles for your own benefit. They are solely meant to go in our windows to follow the commandment of pirsum hanes, to publicize the miracle. But more so than that, we place the menorah in our windows to share our light with those who need it most. We light up the darkness that others are feeling. Because we have been there. We have been in that dark place before. That is why we are taught to increase the number of candles each night of Chanukah, to always add more light to the darkness. That is our challenge and that is our goal. That is what Joseph did. He was there. And so he knew what it felt like. And that is our goal too! We have been in this hole before. So when we experience someone else struggling with darkness, we put our menorahs in the window. We jump down the hole with them, because we know the way out.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Forgive Yourself

During these days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we spend extra time reflecting on ourselves. We insert additional words into our daily Amidah prayers, asking God to remember the good that we have done in our lives.

But we are supposed to do more than just recite additional words of liturgy. We are taught to spend these days saying sorry. We apologize to those that we have wronged – knowingly and unknowingly – through the past year. We reach out to family members, friends, co-workers, and classmates, and apologize if we have hurt them in anyway. Sometimes, it is easy to know when we have wronged another. Other times though, we hurt someone’s feelings without even realizing it. That is why we reach out to those that we care about to say we’re sorry, whether we know we have hurt them or not.

In that vein, I want to apologize to you if I have done anything during this past year to hurt you. If I did, I truly apologize.

Forgive

We first ask for forgiveness from others, and then we ask for forgiveness from God. We repent during these days leading up to Yom Kippur so that we can beginning the most serious of days apologizing to God. We go into the day of fasting, a day filled with admitting our mistakes and transgressions, knowing that God will forgive us. We wear white on Yom Kippur because it is a symbol of a new beginning. We believe that we will be sealed for a new start and clean slate in the year to come.

Lastly, and most important, we need to forgive ourselves. We are our own biggest critics. We are often harder on ourselves than others are. We continue to feel the pain of our wrongdoings long after we have turned a new page. The most important step in this process of renewal is being able to forgive ourselves. Yes, we must admit our mistakes, but just as we did during the Tashlikh ritual, we must let go of what we’ve done in order to truly begin again. May we have the courage to ask ourselves for forgiveness and may we have the strength to finally forgive ourselves.

Wishing you a meaningful conclusion to these days of reflection!

Gmar Chatima Tova!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Finding Purpose in the Shofar Blasts

While we look forward to the blasts of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah that announce the new year, we’ve actually been blowing shofar at Beth El since September 4. We are instructed to blow the shofar every weekday morning during the Hebrew month of Elul — a whole month prior to the actual Jewish new year. We blow the shofar to remind us that the new year is upon us, and to encourage us to use these weeks for spiritual reflection. In some ways, the shofar blasts that we will hear in the coming days on Rosh Hashanah is a culmination of that period of self-examination. In fact, we are taught that our responsibility is not to blow the shofar, but to hear the blasts, so much so that the person who blows the shofar must also make sure to listen. And each blast, from the beginning of Elul until Rosh Hashanah day, is meant to help prepare us spiritually.

big-shofarTekiah! Tekiah is our wake up call. A single blast meant to remind us that we are here and present, created in God’s image with the power to create, to love, and to build. Tekiah is a call to grab our attention, a reminder that we too often get consumed with the thoughts of others and don’t focus on ourselves enough. Tekiah reminds us to not compare ourselves to others and instead focus on becoming the best version of ourselves in the year ahead.

Shevarim! Shevarim is three short blasts. The rabbis compare these blasts to the whimpering of a child. We cry to acknowledge our own broken hearts. We cry to acknowledge the brokenness inside us all. While Tekiah allows us to celebrate the divine spark within us, Shevarim reminds us that life’s journey is bumpy. In order to do a true accounting of the soul, we must accept what we have done right and what we have done wrong. We must celebrate the progress we’ve made since this time last year, but also speak of our mistakes.

T’ruah! T’ruah, nine short staccato notes, reminds us of the brokenness in the world, because when we make a new year’s resolution we think about ourselves and others. T’ruah represents wailing and tears. But when we begin Rosh Hashanah, we turn those tears of sorrow into tears of joy.

Ultimately, the shofar is a symbol of liberation, announcing a new year, announcing our new selves. It reminds us never to be apathetic or complacent. It reminds us that we are each holy, and we should never see ourselves as anything less than that. May the shofar blasts awaken us to a new year full of health, happiness, peace, and love, and may this new year be filled with new beginnings for us all.

Join us on both days of Rosh Hashanah for our Shofar service, which will take place in the Sanctuary at approximately 11:00am.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Making Room for all Four Children

We read at our Seder tables that the Torah reflects upon four children: the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. The Haggadah tells us that wise child asks about the rites and rituals. The wise child is concerned with how to follow the laws. The supposedly wicked child is in search of meaning, trying to find personal significance and understanding in ritual, asking “what does this mean to you?” The simple child simply asks “what is this?” wanting to know more and to learn more. The fourth child doesn’t ask anything at all.
For centuries, commentators have spent a great deal of time asking what role these four children play in the Haggadah and in the Passover narrative. If the goal of the Seder is to retell – and reenact and re-experience – the exodus from Egypt, then these four children seeFoursons2m out of place. However, the goal of the Seder is much more than that. The goal of Passover is to light a spark within each of us, to appreciate our past and our freedom, and to refuse to stand idly by while others suffer from similar oppression or wait to be free. Introducing the four children during the Passover Seder acknowledges our various relationships with Judaism, with the exodus narrative, and with freedom at different moments in our lives.

At times, we are each the “wise,” the so-called “wicked,” the “simple,” and the “silent.” At times we are interested in rites and rituals; other times we challenge the status quo. There are times when we simply want to learn more and there are times that we refuse to act and don’t do anything at all. We read about these four children because we acknowledge that we encompass them all. We should never just strive to be wise or simple. And it isn’t so bad at times to be defiant or silent. Our challenge is to know how to act and when.

As we celebrate Passover, may we all strive to find meaning in being each of these four children. May we learn about ritual and law, in hopes that these rituals are a meaningful vehicle to help us connect to the Divine. May we challenge authority to search for meaning and understanding, knowing that we cannot find true connection, unless we find true meaning. May we learn that the simplest and most basic of questions are often the most profound. And may we learn to talk less and listen more, taking in the lessons that the world around us has to teach. Chag Sameach!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Standing Up on Purim

Purim is a holiday that promotes silliness. With costumes to groggers, loud noises and disguises, it’s easy to ignore the true message of Purim: it is the celebration of a miracle. In fact, we recite the words of Al HaNisim in our liturgy on the festival day — a variation of the same prayer that we say on Chanukah — praising the Divine for the miracle of saving the Jewish people. We celebrate with joy and thanksgiving the miracle of our continued existence.

 

However, I believe the miracle is also about something greater: it is about Esther’s transformation.

 

Apricot-Hamantaschen1At the very beginning of chapter two of Megillat Esther, Esther is referred to a single time as Hadassah, her Jewish name. The name Esther acculturated her, helping her to become Ahashverosh’s new queen. And as queen, she had it made. The text says that she “obtained grace and favor” in the sight of the king; she received unlimited gifts and dined at countless feasts. She was living the good life. When her cousin Mordechai shared with her Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews, she didn’t have to do anything. Although she was born Jewish, she had no fear for her personal safety; nothing was going to happen to Ahashverosh’s most beloved queen.

 

Esther was initially hesitant about standing up to the King. She didn’t feel the impact of Haman’s threat. But then she saw Mordecai tear his clothes and heard that the Jews of Shushan fasted for three days. She witnessed their pain and fear. While she knew that Haman’s plan might not impact her directly, she decided to use her privilege as queen to take a stand for the Jewish community.

 

Esther’s actions reflect those of Moses at the beginning of the book of Exodus. He, too, was a Jew-by-birth, but he was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, living a life of wealth, freedom, and prosperity. Pharaoh’s actions towards the Israelite slaves didn’t directly affect Moses. He didn’t have to do anything. Yet, seeing the suffering of the Israelites as they were being beaten by taskmasters, he took a stand. He didn’t have to for his own sake: he had to for the sake of others. Esther and Moses risked their own safety and gave up their comfort in order to save those who were suffering around them.

 

The miracle that we celebrate on Purim isn’t just that the Jews of Shushan were saved. The miracle is also that Esther took a stand to help others. We must live the lessons of Purim. We cannot only step out of our comfort zone to be silly. We must step out of our comfort zone to fight for the well being of others. We cannot only blot out Haman’s name. We must also blot out injustice. And as we celebrate miracles that will then take place, may we celebrate our willingness – and obligation – to take a stand for one another.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Miracle of Civil Discourse

There was only enough oil to last for one night, and miraculously it lasted for eight whole nights!

This is the Chanukah story we teach our children in school and what is generally accepted as the root of our Chanukah celebration. Yet oil lasting for longer than expected is hardly a miracle, and such a story is hardly a reason to establish in annual festival. Rather, the lighting of the Menorah, and its flames continuing to burn, holds greater significance than we realize.

The Menorah had been lit at one of the darkest moments in Jewish history. The Temple desecrated, and more alarming was that many Jews had assimilated and embraced the cultural trends of the Assyrian-Greeks. The guerrilla warfare of Chanukah and the Maccabean revolt was not Jew vs. Assyrian-Greek. It was Jew vs. Jew. This civil war pitted the Jewish community against itself and put the future of Judaism in serious jeopardy. When the Menorah was lit, and the Temple was rededicated, the light became a symbol of something greater. The light served as a new beginning.

ArguingOur tradition teaches that the Jewish people are an ohr la’goyim, a light unto the world. We believe that we have insight to share, and ethics and values to teach. Yet, I fear that often, we spend too much time in civil war. Disagreement is good. Discussion is healthy. Much “discussion” we find in the Talmud is deemed a Machloket L’Shem Shamayim, a disagreement for the Sake of Heaven. Sometimes, disagreements are holy disagreements.

But recently, the Jewish community has gotten to a point where it seems we can’t even talk to each other. We won’t come to the table with those that we disagree with. We take to social media not to reasonably discuss and debate, but to seemingly belittle others’ opinions, embarrassing them in the process. Our broad Jewish community needs to reframe our conversations and reframe our relationships.

As we light our Chanukiyot this holiday season, let us not only focus on the historic rededication of the Temple that once stood in Jerusalem. Let us also rededicate ourselves – to civility, to unity, and to an understanding that despite our deepest of disagreements, we still must strive to be Am Echad Im Lev Echad: one people with one heart.

We cannot be a light unto the world until we are a light unto ourselves. On Chanukah we are taught not only to say Chag Sameach, meaning “happy holiday,” but also to say Chag Urim Sameach, meaning “may you have a happy and light-filled holiday.” At this darkest time of the year, when the shortened days mean the sky is dark when we awake and dark when we return home, may our paths be illuminated by the light of the original Menorah, and our own individual menorahs that we light. May we rededicate ourselves to civility, to our ability to come together as community. May we embrace each other and respect each other, regardless of our opinions. If we can do that, then that would be a true miracle!

This blog post was originally published in the Winter 2015-2016 edition of the Congregation Beth El Bulletin. 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Pursuit of Happiness

Last week, Columbia University’s Earth Institute released its yearly World Happiness Report. Yes, you read that correctly. This is an annual scientific survey that rates which countries throughout the world are happiest. How do they measure happiness? To be honest I have no idea, but apparently the study comes on the back of a growing global movement calling for governments and policy makers throughout the world to focus less on economic growth and more on people’s overall well-being. It is a fascinating idea that government policies, including economic policies, employment opportunities, and the like don’t necessarily cause happiness. Furthermore, financial struggles, unemployment, and even illness don’t cause one to be unhappy, according to the study. It’s just as we are taught in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Sages:

Ezeh Hu Ashir, Sameach B’Chelko.

Who is rich? One who is happy with want he has. 

Happiness has nothing to do with wealth. Rather, it has to do we appreciating the miracles in one’s life. Thus, Columbia’s Earth Institute decided to focus on happiness as the most important gauge of how successful a country is and its citizens are. 

According to the survey of 156 countries, the world’s happiest countries are Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, and Sweden. Canada comes in at #6, Australia at #10, Israel at #11, and Mexico at #16. The United States of America ranks as #17. It makes you wonder what causes one’s happiness altogether. Why are the Swiss happier than we are? Why is Canada and the United Arab Emirates happier than we are? How can one even truly define happiness? After all, happiness is a part of our identity, a part of the fabric of who we are as a nation. The initial words of the Declaration of Independence clarifies for us that all are endowed by God with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Some of us spend our whole lives trying to accomplish that pursuit. Life is all about that pursuit. All we want to do is be happy. For happiness allows us to not worry about what others are doing, not worry about the problems in the world around us. Instead, it allows us to just focus on us. It allows us to be happy with whom we are. On the festival of Sukkot we sing the words: V’Semachta B’Hagecha, V’Hiyyata Ach Sameach, taken from Chapter 16 of the book of Deuteronomy, meaning And You shall rejoice in your festival and you will have nothing but joy. We are commanded to be joyful on the holiday! Furthermore, in our liturgy, we refer to Sukkot as Z’man Simchateinu , a time for our happiness and joy.

What an odd command. We cannot be happy, we cannot feel an emotion, solely because we are told to do so, simply because we are commanded to do so. Rather, we are happy because we are content with our lives and our appreciative of the blessings in our lives, and the blessing of being alive.

During Shabbat of Chol HaMoed Sukkot we read the book of Kohelet, the book of Ecclesiates. This book teaches us that there is a season for everything and reminds us of the importance of polarities. There is a time to be born, and a time to die; there is a time to plant and a time to reap; there is a time to laugh and a time to weep.

There is a time to be happy and a time to be sad.

Maybe we are told that Sukkot is a time to be joyous because it follows immediately on the heels of Yom Kippur, such a serious holiday. However, the Babylonian Talmud teaches that actually Yom Kippur is the happiest day of the year. So maybe our hope then is to carry on the supposed joy of Yom Kippur and let it last and linger into Sukkot. Whatever the reason, we feel at a loss with such a command to be happy.

We as a community are still in a sense of shock follow the tragic event that took a member of our community and critically injured a child in our community. We are saddened. We are angry. We grieve. We ask and wonder how we can be happy, how can we be commanded to be happy, when our hearts continue to  break, when we continue to mourn?

Maybe Ecclesiastes had a point. We live in a world of polarities. We cannot appreciate peace without experiencing war. We cannot appreciate life without witnessing death. We cannot appreciate our health without experiencing illness. We cannot appreciate waking up to experience a new day, without coming face-to-face with life’s trials and tribulations. We cannot appreciate happiness, without also expressing gloom and grief. We cannot comprehend, nor will we ever comprehend evil, suffering, or tragedy. Still, we can come to appreciate our own lives. We witness sorrow, and come to experience joy. As the Psalmist taught, “our mourning will turn into dancing.”

There is a time to be sad, and there is a time to be happy.

HappyFaceImageWhen we see such darkness in the world, such chaos, and experience such tragedy in our own community, we give up on trying to be happy. We see tragedy on the news and find it hard to smile. This is exactly why we are commanded to be happy! Maybe if we were never commanded to be happy then we wouldn’t be. Being commanded to be happy allows us to let go of the heartache and tragedy. Being commanded to be happy allows us to wipe away the tears and begin to smile again.

Being commanded to be happy allows us to smile. Ron Gutman focused on the importance of smiling in a TEDTalks presentation he gave. He explained that smiling – that happiness – is actually our natural state. Seeing the darkness of the world changes that, but we are actually born smiling. 3D sonograms actually show that while still in the womb, developing babies are smiling. Babies continue to smile in their sleep when they are born.

He further noted that more than a 1/3 of humanity smiles more than twenty times per day, but children, who are still innocent and have yet to be exposed to some of the challenges of this world, smile as many as 400 times a day. That is why being around children make us smile. Smiling is contagious.

So if we are to fulfill the command of V’Semachta b’Hagecha v’Hiyyata Ach Sameach, then it begins with smiling. After all, Pirkei Avot teaches in the name of Rabbi Shammai:

Mekabel et Kol HaAdam b’sever Panim Yafot.

Greet every person with a cheerful face, with a smile.

In our smiling, may we experience the happiness that we seek, the happiness that we are commanded to find, and may such smiles and such happiness comfort us among the grief and sorrow that we all too often feel. May we all find happiness and joy in this festival and in our lives. Moadim L’Simcha and Chag Sameach.

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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