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Committed to the Cause

Last week saw the beginning of the 116th Congress of the United States, with Republicans controlling the Senate and Democrats controlling the House, and Mitch McConnell remaining in control as the Majority Leader of the Senate and Nancy Pelosi returning to the role of Speaker of the House. Additionally, we saw a record 102 women sworn in the House and 15 in the Senate. 36 women are freshman members of Congress; 23 Freshman House members are people of color. There are also currently more than 10 out openly LGBTQ members of Congress. We saw the first Muslim women and the first Native Americans sworn into Congress as well. This Congress is without a doubt the most swearinginbooksdiverse in our country’s history. CNN shared a picture of the variety of books that members of Congress chose to place their hands on when taking the oath of office. This included the Christian Bible, the Tanakh, the Book of Mormon, the Quran, the Buddhist Sutra, the Hindu Vera, and the Constitution itself. Locally, new members of Congress are veterans, former employees of the state department, and worked in previous presidential administrations.

I was mesmerized by the social media posts of these newest members of Congress, documenting the beginning of their tenure as elected officials, promising to represent, We the People. No matter our views on their positions or promises, their documenting this experience is truly incredible:

Or newly sworn-in Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer for Iowa’s First Congressional District:

Or Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who tweeted:

Or Congressman Brian Mast, a military veteran who congratulated two new freshman members of Congress who are also military veterans with the tweet:

To see these individuals enter a leadership role is a reminder of the power that each of us has to become leaders. Parashat Va’era focuses on the first seven of the ten plagues that fall upon the people of Egypt. Prior to those ten plagues though, the Torah recounts the genealogy of Aaron and Moses, linking them all the way back to Jacob’s children, and in doing so, linking the leaders of this exodus narrative to our biblical patriarchs and matriarchs that made up much of the Genesis narrative. Exodus 6:20 notes Amram took to wife his father’s sister Yocheved and she bore him Aaron and Moses. The Torah then says something a bit odd:

This is the same Aaron and Moses to whom God said, ‘Bring forth the Israelites from the land of Egypt, tribe by tribe. It was they who spoke to Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to free the Israelites from the Egyptians; these are the same Moses and Aaron (Ex. 6:26-27).

Most biblical commentators wonder why the Torah awkwardly states that “these are the same Moses and Aaron.” Rashi explains that the reason it is repeated and stipulated that these are the same Moses and Aaron is because the Torah is clarifying that they remain committed to their cause. Quoting Tractate Megillah of the Babylonian Talmud, Rashi writes: They remained in their mission and in their righteousness, from beginning until the end.

It is common for leaders to change, to become different people than they were when they rose to leadership. Most elected officials end up disappointing us, because they change their views, because they don’t live up to campaign promises – many of which were unattainable to begin with, because they might cozy up to lobbyist and special interests, or because they are more concerned with reelection than they are with governing or passing legislation.

So let us pray that the members of the 116th Congress live up to the values found in the books that they placed their hands on as they were sworn into office. Let us pray that they live up to the ideals of the Constitution that they promised to protect. And let us pray that they, like Moses and Aaron, remain the same people they were before the titles “Representative” or “Senator” were place in front of their names. May they still be driven by the same mission; may they live a life full of the same righteousness. And may they be guided by the same principles. May they not become burnt out, or corrupted, or influenced, or bigheaded. Instead, may they be who they were meant to be. These are the same people as they were before, the Torah tells us. May they lead. And may our nation be better off as a result.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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On Privilege and Injustice: Joseph’s Role in helping some while hurting others

Joseph could no longer control himself, the Torah tells us.

“Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants and he cried out, ‘Have everyone withdraw from me!’ So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace. Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still well?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dumfounded were they on account of him. Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come forward to me.’” (Gen. 45:1-4).

Joseph reunites with his brothers. He is the hero and he is the savior, not just for his family, but for all of Egypt. Or so we are led to believe. Pharaoh responds by telling Joseph’s family that “the best of all the land of Egypt shall be yours” (Gen. 45:20). Pharaoh says, “the land of Egypt is open before you: settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land” (Gen. 47:6). And in turn,  “Joseph sustained his father, and his brothers, and all his father’s household with bread, down to the little ones” (Gen. 47:12).

It seems everything works out. And Joseph saves all of Egypt from famine by supplying them with food that had been collected during seven years of plenty. It was a happily ever after conclusion to the story. As Andrew Lloyd Weber wrote and the ensemble of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat sang: “Joseph how can we ever say all that we want to about you, We’re so glad that you came our way; we would have perished without you.”

But the Torah tells us that Joseph wasn’t the savior that that is portrayed under the lights of Broadway. It wasn’t so happily ever after, at least not for those who weren’t a part of Joseph’s family. When the famine became so severe and there was no bread in the land, Egyptians began turning to the vizier of Egypt.  But Joseph wasn’t giving away “handouts.” This was not an act of tzedakah or charity. First, Joseph takes their money: “Joseph gathered all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt” (Gen. 47:14). And when there was no money left Joseph said, “bring me your livestock” (Gen. 47:16).  And when no animals were left they were desperate for food and said: “take us and our land in exchange for bread” (Gen. 47:19).

As Rabbi Shai Held, Rosh Yeshiva of Mechon Hadar, points out: “Joseph is an adept manager, but he is also seemingly a ruthless one: He saves the Egyptians but, as we shall see, he also enslaves them.” Joseph ends up creating a system of indentured servitude. The Egyptians couldn’t pay for food. First, they gave their money, and then their cattle, and then their homes, and then finally themselves. Joseph is no tzedek. He is not giving out food during a humanitarian crisis, like we would expect FEMA or the Red Cross to do. He is taking advantage of the straits that the Egyptians find themselves in and acquires them. Joseph enslaves them.

We are often left wondering: how is it possible that a king could rise up at the beginning of Exodus who doesn’t know Joseph, who in turn enslaves the Israelites?!? But what if the Israelites were the last to be enslaved? As troubling as the exodus story is, and as essential as the exodus experience is to our communal memory, what if we read it differently? What if according to this understanding, all of Egypt were enslaved except for the Israelites. All had succumbed to the reality of serfdom while the Hebrew privilege, the privilege that came from being a relative of Joseph allowed the Israelites to live in the best of the land, never having to worry about where their next meal would come from. But then all of a sudden, we become enslaved and finally demand justice. Moses only speaks for God in referring to the Israelites when demanding “Let My People Go!” However, when everyone else was enslaved under Pharaoh’s rule, they were ignored.

We never acknowledge the discrimination, injustice, and enslavement of our neighbors in Egypt. We know others were enslaved. The Torah tells us that when the Israelites left Egypt, there was an erev rav, a mixed multitude of diverse individuals who joined in the Exodus with the Israelites. They were enslaved as well, marching with us side-by-side through a split sea to freedom. Yet, we ignore them – or at least ignored them – until we were the victims of an unjust system. What if the Israelites were apathetic – at best – to the injustices around them and directly responsible – at worst – for them?

The problem with the Exodus narrative that brings us such hope is that we only care about our own freedom and ignored the enslavement and injustice of others because it didn’t directly affect us.

Let’s not celebrate Joseph’s dreams coming true. Let’s not celebrate Joseph saving the day. Because he didn’t. Let’s remember Dr. King’s teaching that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. If we refuse to stand up to injustice when it happens to another, it will ultimately happen to us as well as well. And no one will be there to stand with us as allies. It shouldn’t then be a surprise that the Israelites were eventually enslaved if they were content with the enslavement of everyone else in Egypt.

We cannot only stand up and scream because of the rise of anti-Semitism in this country. It is deeply troubling, but if we only care about that, and aren’t equally concerned about the rise in hate crimes across the board – about the rise in Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and racism – then we can’t be shocked with the spike in hatred towards us. If we witness injustice happening all around us but are content because Pharaoh supplies us with bread on our tables and the best of the land of Egypt to live in, then we are just waiting for injustice to happen to us as well. Let us remember that your liberation is bound up with mine, and mine with yours. So let us work together to create a wholly just society, where no one’s success is the result of anyone else’s demise.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

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#NeverIsNow

We are at the point in our Torah where we celebrate Joseph’s rise to power as second-in-command in Egypt. Not only is he celebrated, but he is celebrated even though Pharaoh knows he is a Hebrew. And Pharaoh is okay with that. In fact, Midrash teaches that Osnat Bat Potiphara is Hebrew as well, adopted by an Egyptian family, and Pharaoh wanted to help Joseph find a Hebrew wife. In doing so, he honored Joseph’s Hebrew lineage.

In fact, when Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers and reunites with them in Parashat Vayigash, the Torah tells us that:

The news reached Pharaoh’s palace: Joseph’s brothers have come. Pharaoh and his courtiers were pleased. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Say to your brothers, do as follows: load up your beasts and go at once to the land of Canaan. Take your father and your households and come to me. I will give you the best of the land of Egypt and you shall live off the fat of the land  (Gen. 45:16-18).

Pharaoh ends up celebrating Joseph’s Jewish identity. Joseph doesn’t have to hide it. And Pharaoh rewards his family with the best that the land of Egypt has to offer.

Yet, somehow, as the book of Exodus starts and time passes, we read:

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph (Ex. 1:8).

I am always left wondering about this simple verse that is often glossed over. Maybe it is a necessary addition by editors to connect the otherwise separate stories of the book of Genesis and the Exodus narrative that follows. Or maybe it is a reminder that no matter how great it feels at times – with the Hebrew second-in-command ruler of Egypt whose identity is openly expressed and acknowledged and his family living off the fat of the land – that doesn’t mean that hate isn’t far behind. That doesn’t mean that we won’t eventually come in contact with the king that does not remember Joseph.

ADLI spent a part of last week at “Never is Now”, the Anti-Defamation League’s conference on Anti-Semitism and Hate. During the opening plenary session, Deborah Lipstadt, Professor of Holocaust Studies at Emory University – famous for fighting Holocaust Deniers publicly and through the legal system – was asked about the rise in Anti-Semitism in this country. She referred to Anti-Semitism as “the oldest new form of hate.” It always seems so new, because we always feel comfortable, and then bam! It comes out of nowhere. She was sitting next to Bret Stephens, the conservative columnist at The New York Times. She mentioned how her parents’ generation wouldn’t have believed that the likes of Bret Stephens, or even Op-Ed editor, Bari Weiss, so openly wrote about Judaism and their Jewish identities in The New York Times, still the paper of record. She was acknowledging that this is an example of how great Jews have it in this country. This is the equivalent of us having “the best of the land” just as Joseph’s brothers were given. And yet, the ADL reported that in 2017 there were 4.2 million Anti-Semitic tweets posted by 3 million different Twitter users. This isn’t a dark web social media platform that Anti-Semites use. This is the preferred social media platform of the President of the United States, that he uses to announce policy and communicate with foreign leaders. This is a reminder of how quickly a king could arise that doesn’t know Joseph.

No matter how great life seems – and the success and freedom that Jews have in this country in 2018, is greater than at any other point in the diaspora – the oldest new form of hate, Anti-Semitism, will always lurk in the background. May we never stop celebrating our success – the Joseph’s rising to power – and may we never stop fighting the kings who might arise who do not remember us. May we never stop fighting hate, no matter how successful we are, or safe we feel.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Light Up The Darkness

The following Hanukkah message was sent out to the Congregation Beth El community from myself and Rabbi Rachel Marder on Saturday night, December 1, prior to the beginning of the Festival of Hanukkah:

As we prepare to light our hanukkiyot tomorrow evening and welcome in the Festival of Hanukkah, we find comfort in what these hanukkiyot represent. Jewish law is clear that one must light the hanukkiyah at the entrance of one’s home. It should be outside for all to see. Halakha, Jewish law, even stipulates that it needs be at a certain height so that passersby will be sure to see the flickering flames. More recently, it has become customary to place it in our homes in front of the windows, still on display for the public to see. Unlike Shabbat candles which had a practical purpose of providing light when it was dark, Hanukkah candles are not meant to be used to illuminate the room. In fact, one was prohibited from using the light. We do not take advantage of the light. Rather, we display it. In doing so, we fulfill the mitzvah of Pirsum HaNisa, publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah. But the menorah serves another purpose: it adds light to the darkness, literally and metaphorically, when we so desperately need it. Furthermore, publicly displaying such a ritual object declares that we will never be afraid of who we are or hide what we believe.

Twenty-five years ago during Hanukkah in Billings, Montana, a brick was thrown through five-year-old Isaac Schnitzer’s window, where he’d displayed his hanukkiyah. The local paper, the Billings Gazette, responded by printing a full-page picture of a menorah, asking residents to stand united against hate and display these menorahs in their windows. While the Jewish community made up less than 1% of Billing’s population, Christian, Muslim, and Indigenous residents of the city displayed menorahs in their windows, to publicize not just the miracle of Hanukkah, but their commitment to stand united against all forms of hate.

We light our hanukkiyot this year when it feels especially dark. We just concluded Sheloshim, the month-long mourning process, for the Tree of Life synagogue community in Pittsburgh, and we are well-aware that Anti-Semitism, and bigotry of all kinds, is on the rise. But let us not hide our hanukkiyot. Let us display them proudly and publicly. Place them in your window this year for all to see and let the lights of the hanukkiyah spread. May we never feel afraid to do so. May we celebrate doing so. And may we, together, light up the darkness for all those who need light.

Chag Urim Sameach

-Rabbi Jesse Olitzky and Rabbi Rachel Marder

 

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We Can Help Each Other’s Dreams Come True

The Torah tells us that Jacob’s sons were shepherding their flocks in Shechem so Jacob sent Joseph there to check on them. He went to Shechem but they were not there. The text says that there, he encountered an ish, a certain man, who suggests that they had gone down to Dotan. Joseph instead follows them there. This person is not mentioned again. The individual is so inconsequential that a name isn’t even given for this biblical character. But this person sends Joseph to his brothers, and as a result, also sends him to slavery and to prison, but eventually also to be the second-in-command in Egypt, stocking up on food during years of plenty, and saving the region during years of famine. It is a reminder of how a single person, and a single moment, can have such an impact on where we go in life. The Torah also teaches us that maybe this ish, this man, wasn’t an ordinary man at all. Earlier in Genesis, Abraham sees three men who turn out to be divine beings, Angels, sent as messengers of God. Jacob also wrestles with a man – an ish – who ends up being an angel, a messenger from God, and blesses Jacob by changing his name to Yisrael. Maybe, just maybe, this man in the distance, was also a divine messenger, ensuring that Joseph went on the not-so-straight path that he went on to end up where he ended up. Maybe that person was just an ish – or an isha – an ordinary person, but it is each of us, ordinary people, that have the power to do God’s holy work every day.

Parashat Vayeshev is filled with a ton of dreams, dreams by Joseph, and dreams by the Pharaoh’s steward and baker that Joseph interprets. In the following parasha, Parashat Mikketz, we read of Pharaoh’s dreams. But Joseph’s dreams are that he will be in a position of command. This man – this ish – this angel, this messenger, indirectly sends Joseph on a path to ensure that his dreams will come true. If the angel was not there, Joseph would’ve returned home. But this interaction changes his life, for bad, but eventually for good. This interaction makes his dream come true.

The Babylonian Talmud, in Berachot 57b, teaches that dreams are 1/60 of prophecy. There is a divine element and aspect to every dream we have. Let us then be each other’s angels, divine messengers to help our dreams come true. We can never underestimate how a simple conversation or interaction – or simply asking for directions – can impact the course of one’s lives. May we be each other’s angels. May we help make each other’s dreams come true.

-Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

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God Was in This Snowstorm and I Did Not Know it

I spent seven hours in traffic on Thursday during the first snowstorm of the year. Despite having four-wheel drive and driving an SUV, I even spun out once. It was clear that the state of New Jersey was not prepared for this storm. My horror story is like many of yours. My children were stuck at school and I could not get to them. My wife had to abandon her car and at midnight, walked to a friend’s house a mile and a half away to spend the night. A neighbor was able to pick up our daughter finally and she arrived home at 11:30pm. Our son and other daughter were stranded at preschool and friends were able to walk to the school and bring them back to their home until I was able to get to them at 9:00pm. Truth be told, I also know that these horror stories were nothing compared to what others experienced. There are those of you whose children were stuck on school busses without knowing where they were and others whose children ended up sleeping at school that night. Miraculously, when I woke up the next morning to pick up my wife and then drive around until we found her car, the roads were fine. The sun was out. The snow had already begun to melt. But Thursday afternoon and evening was the perfect storm.

I am grateful to all that helped during the storm, but that is what you expect from community. I expected that friends would pick up my children if I needed them or that their teachers would take amazing care of them until we were able to get to them. What I was in awe of though was the help from strangers. When my wife was stuck in her minivan somewhere in Livingston, a man noticed and got out of his home to help push her car, then invited her in for water and to use the bathroom. I saw residents marching from their homes to downtown South Orange with snow shovels to smooth out the roads and help cars that were fishtailing until the plows could finally get there. Community means being there for each other. We are grateful for friends, neighbors, and teachers who were there, but I am in awe of complete strangers who were there as well. In a time of crisis, we were there for each other. We were each other’s angels.

At the beginning of Parashat Vayetze, Jacob has a dream in which he sees angels ascending and descending on a ladder towards the Heavens.

“And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Gen. 28:12).

When Jacob awoke from his dream, he declared:

“God is in this place and I did not know it” (Gen. 28:16).

Our rabbinic commentators try to explain why the text says that the angels ascended and descended this ladder. If they came down from the Heavens, one would assume that they would descend first. But I would suggest that the fact that they ascended the ladder first meant that they were all around Jacob – God’s Presence was all around Jacob – but he did not realize it.

Jacob was in crisis. The previous Torah portion concludes with him fleeing his home, fearful of his life. He is worried that his brother Esau will kill him. And in crisis, he sees the angels all around him.

So too, on Thursday, during a crazy snowstorm and the traffic that ensued as a result, we saw angels all around us, walking in God’s ways, helping those in need. But why does it take crisis for us to realize the angels all around us? Why don’t we see those angels around us all the time? My hope is that now, we will. Following crisis, Jacob awoke from his dream and declared that now he knew of God’s Presence all around him.

We live at a time when society is so divided. We prefer to stay in our bubbles, with those who think like us. We oppose any political viewpoints that are different than our own and judge others who side with such views. However, in times of crisis, we are not asking about one’s political affiliation, or who they voted for in the most recent election. We are simply helping each other, because we are all human, and we see the divine spark within each person, made in God’s divine image. We are serving as God’s angels as we do so.

May we not just wait for crisis to walk in God’s ways and be God’s angels. May we not all of a sudden awaken from our stumper and realize God’s Presence all around us in the eyes of our fellows. Rather, may we strive to be angels for each other every day, in times of crisis and in times of joy and blessing. Then, we will be able to build a society based on love and unity, where we are able to see the divine spark within each other.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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See The Signs

This past weekend marked the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. On Kristallnacht, on November 9, 1938, a pogrom against the Jewish community was carried out by the Nazi’s paramilitary forces. By the next day, over a hundred Jews were murdered, and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested or sent to concentration camps. Jewish schools and hospitals were looted. Jewish buildings were demolished. 267 synagogues in Germany and Austria were destroyed. And over 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed or damaged. Store windows were shattered. Torah Scrolls were set on fire. These events seem so far removed from our minds. And yet, they are so close.

Historians look at Kristallnacht as a wake-up call, an alarm that was set off. November 9, 1938. But Kristallnacht was already after the Nuremberg Laws were passed in 1935 that sought to limit the freedom of Jewish citizens and exclude them from civil society. Historians identify the beginning of the Holocaust as 1941 – that is when Jews were marched into the gas chambers and Nazis put their plan of mass extermination of the Jewish people into play. But 1941 was three years after Kristallnacht, six years after the Nuremberg Laws were passed, and eight years after Hitler’s democratically elected rise to power. I can’t help but ask, after each of these events, why didn’t the Jewish community all leave then, even if some tried to? Why didn’t more people stand up and fight back, even if some tried, most notably the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising? Why didn’t the non-Jewish community do more to help the Jews, even if so many risked their own lives to save Jewish lives? Why didn’t other nations intervene sooner?

The Anti-Defamation League said that there was a 57% increase in Anti-Semitism from 2016-2017. We know what that can lead to; we experienced are own modern-day Kristallnact of sorts as we mourned with our brother and sisters in Pittsburgh two weeks ago, two Shabbatot ago. In France, the French Prime Minister’s office announced that Anti-Semitic incidents have increased by 69%. And here, we see laws passed to limit one’s rights based on their identities, be in gender identity, or country of origin, or immigration status. So we are left in the same exact situation. Last week we showed up for Shabbat in solidarity with the Tree of Life Synagogue. What do we do this week? Next week? Next month? After that?

And we must call out not just those who act with such hate, but those who fan the flames of hate; we must call out those who are just as responsible for those evil acts, not just the physically perpetrators of such acts, but also those whose policies were put in place, whose political promises, stoked the flames of this fire.

When we call out hate, it is easy to blame one person. No one is more to blame than those that committed such acts of hate and violence. Yet, there are so many responsible. And those with the biggest megaphones and soapboxes, rightly deserve such blame. But they are not alone in that blame. Those who are behind the scenes, encouraging the actions of those whose voices are heard are just as responsible. And those who remain silent, when such acts of evil don’t directly affect them –  or directly affect us – are to blame as well.

I often would wonder why more wasn’t done following Kristallnacht, why those in position of power who could’ve stopped the eventuality of the Holocaust didn’t stand up to Hitler and the Nazi party. I often wonder why more people didn’t see the signs and become fearfully aware of where they would lead. Let’s open our eyes and see the signs. This isn’t about politics or partisan issues. This isn’t about Republicans or Democrats. This isn’t about Red America or Blue America. This is about what hateful words of people in positions of power, who demonize minority groups, can lead to. The Holocaust happened eight years after Hitler rose to power. Let us all see the scary signs – the rise in hate crimes, in hateful acts, and in hateful rhetoric – and stand up to it now, before it is too late. Because when we say never again, we mean never again. And when we say never again, we don’t just mean never again for the Jewish people; we mean never again will we allow this to happen to anyone.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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I Will Never Hide Who I Am

Following the murder of 11 congregants at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last Shabbat, in what the Anti-Defamation League called the largest mass killing of Jews in US History, I could not find any words to say. There are no words to make sense of such hate. There are no words to calm the fears that so many in the American Jewish Community feel right now. Through 2000 years wandering in exile, we experienced oppression, ostracization, excommunication, and murder because we were Jews. But the Jewish community has experienced more freedom here, more safety here, and more success here than ever before. And it was here, in America, the land of the free, that on last Shabbat, we were murdered for being Jewish. So I couldn’t find any words to say. There were no words from our tradition, no teachings of rabbinic literature, no verses of Torah that made sense of this moment.

Then I was reminded of words from US history, the words of President George Washington. Washington was touring the country following the establishment of this new government, to buy goodwill from Americans who were still trying to figure out what it meant to be American. Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Yisrael — now known as the Touro Synagogue — is the oldest synagogue in this country. That Jewish community from Newport, Rhode Island sent a letter of congratulations to President Washington in advance of his visit there. He famously replied:

For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.  

May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

In Parashat Chaye Sarah, the Torah reading that we read this past Shabbat, our biblical patriarch Abraham prepares to bury his beloved wife and find a burial place for her. In doing so, he refers to himself as a ger toshav. He tells the Hittites: “I am a ger toshav; I am a resident and I am a stranger.” He lived among the Hittites, but didn’t quite feel like he was home. He still felt different. He still felt like an outsider.

For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens. 

When much of the wave of Jewish immigrants came to this country at the turn of the twentieth century, or prior to or immediately following the Holocaust, or as refugees from the former Soviet Union, long after George Washington wrote these words to the Jewish community of Rhode Island in 1790, they came here – we came herebecause of the promise that this country gives to bigotry no sanction and to persecution no assistance. And that in order to be an American, we must strive to be good citizens.

Last Sunday evening, I stood in downtown South Orange with so many of you at a candlelight vigil mourning those murdered in Squirrel Hill. I did so wearing my tallit, my prayer shawl. Standing among a dozen clergy including many rabbis and cantors, I was alone in wearing a tallit. Because you don’t wear a tallit when it is not a worship service. You certainly don’t wear it at night. In fact, the only time we wear a tallit in the evening is on Kol Nidre, as we begin our Yom Kippur fasts and we experience a spiritual death of sorts. After feeling a sense of communal lose not just another instance of gun violence and not just another mass shooting with a murderer using an AR-15a loss of innocence, a loss of feeling safe and secure in sacred space, I donned this tallit. I intentionally wore a tallit at a time when we typically do not, in public space where we typically do not, as a statement that we will never hide who we are and we will never deny what we believe.

Our people have had to hide all too often throughout our history. There are the Marranos and Conversos of Spain who who were forced to convert to Catholicism during the inquisition and continued to practice Jewish ritual in secret, whose descendants continued to practice certain Jewish rituals, but had no idea that they were Jewish. There are the children of the Kinder Transport, where parents saved their lives by putting them on trains to other parts of Europe and England, saving them from the Nazis; they were raised as Christian to save their lives until the Nazis were defeated. There are those of us who fit into society as much as possible, refusing to stand out because standing out would call attention, standing out would invite further Anti-Semitism and bigotry towards us.

Maybe even in our own communities, we have felt a little bit like a ger toshav at times. But I wore my tallit to declare that I will never be a ger toshav, I will never feel like I do not belong in this country because I am Jewish. I will never be a stranger in my own community. My American identity will be strengthened because of my Jewish identity. And my Jewish identity is strengthened by being American.

There are those of us who came to this country to build a better life and world for our families. There are those of us who are first- and second-generation Americans. I myself am a fourth-generation American. But it doesn’t matter where we were born, or what religion we practice, and it doesn’t matter the language we speak or the color of our skin. Our differences, our uniqueness, makes us Americans because President Washington promised that this is a country that gives to bigotry no sanction. Yet those words from this country’s first president seem so so foreign to the realities of today, where those in power stoke the flames of hate. We will not hide here. But we are fearful when the highest office in the land condones bigotry, rather than promises to give bigotry no sanction.

In our Torah, Abraham is uncertain if he is fully accepted as a resident of Canaan among the Hittites. He refers to himself as a ger toshav because he believes that this is how others see him. No matter how many generations we have lived in a place, we worry, will we always be an outsider. We are worried that we will be stereotyped as cheap with a hooked nose, or referred to as a “globalist” who controls world banking and media empires. We are haunted by chants of White Nationalists declaring “Jews will not replace us” with the flames of their torches in hand illuminating the hate in their eyes. We are scared that our scared spaces will become fortresses, as if this is the only solution to them being safe spaces, because of deranged murderers and words of hate that are espoused that encourage them. 

Abraham ended up being surprised. Bereshit Rabba, the midrash on the book of Genesis, says that the Hitties referred to Abraham as their king, their prince, and their god. But most importantly, Midrash HaGadol suggests that Abraham knew where to bury Sarah because he found all of the Hittites mourning her there, wailing just as he had wailed, crying because her loss was a loss for them as well.

The first calls I received on last Saturday night was from local elected officials, apologizing in advance if they were calling me before Shabbat was over, but wanting to reach out to offer condolences and to see if we were okay. The next calls and texts were from Muslim and Christian clergy colleagues asking what could they do to stand with us. Then there were the hugs and tears shed, and the tightly gripped hands held of neighbors, and the emails and Facebook messages of many who asked if Shabbat services were only open to those of the Jewish faith or if they could join us, to sit with us, to stand with us, at this moment. We are here, a week later, doing exactly what the Tree of Life Synagogue did. Celebrating Shabbat. Praying together as community. Celebrating a Simcha. But we are not alone. And we are not afraid. Because we are not outsiders.

Abraham was worried that his neighbors viewed him as a ger toshav, but his neighbors reaffirmed for him that was not the case. I am not a ger toshav. I am not a stranger. We are not. And I refuse to respond to hate with fear. I respond with love, with love of community, love of all that it means to be a Jew, love of standing up for those who may be different than I am, and love of others who stand with me who stand with us. 

For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens. 

That is all the affirmation we nee to stand united against Anti-Semitism and to stand united against hate of any kind. That is all the affirmation we need to be reminded that we are Jews and Americans. That this is our home and we will never hide who we are. None of us shall ever be a ger toshav here. Instead, let our world be just as President Washington promised two centuries ago, learning from the example of our patriarch:

May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May it be so. Amen.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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#ShowUpForShabbat

The American Jewish Committee launched the #ShowUpForShabbat campaign following last Shabbat’s massacre at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Jewish Federation of North America, with similar sentiments declared that this Shabbat should Solidarity Shabbat. This Shabbat should be a call for Jew and non-Jew alike to come to synagogue. Regardless of one’s faith, or observance of that faith, or synagogue affiliation, it is an opportunity to stand united against hate, participating in the same act that led to the murder of 11 worshipers last week, the same act that we at Beth El participate in every week.

As I shared on social media earlier this week, I never want to guilt anyone into coming to Shabbat services. I don’t think Jewish guilt should be a reason you ever come to synagogue. With that in mind, I invite you, not because of guilt, but because of pride, to come to synagogue this Shabbat. Show up for Shabbat.

Come to Congregation Beth El or one of our neighboring synagogues in the South Orange-Maplewood area. Or attend services at another synagogue close by in a neighboring town. Or celebrate Shabbat at a synagogue close to where you are or where you’ll be.

We do not respond to hate with fear. We respond to hate with love, with love of community, with love of who we are, with love of all that unites us as well as all that makes us unique. We respond to hate by coming together, for as long as we come together, we shall not fear. Come, not full of guilt, but full of pride. #ShowUpForShabbat

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

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Words Matter

There’s a Hasidic story about a man who regretted the hateful words he said and finally wanted to change. He turned to his rabbi and asked how to repent. The rabbi told him to take his pillowcase and bring it into the middle of the forest and tear it open. He did just as the rabbi commanded. As he tore open the fabric, feathers flew everywhere. A gust of wind carried the feathers so far, the man could no longer see them. He returned to his rabbi, having completed the task, and feeling good. “Now go collect all the feathers and put them back in the pillow,” the rabbi said. The man knew that this was an impossible task, and learned the impact of his hateful words.

At the very end of Parashat Vayera, we read of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. Chapter 22 of Genesis begins

 V’yehi achar Hadvarim Haeleh, And it came to pass, after these things.

Most assume this is like the scrolling words at the beginning of a Star Wars film. They are meant to fill you in on what happened immediately prior to this narrative. They are meant to link the stories of the expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar, and Abraham’s conversations with Abimelech to this commandment to kill his son.

But the Hebrew word Devarim, means more than just “things.” It also means “words” and that is how the classical biblical commentator Rashi reads this verse. After these words were said, this happened. Rashi offers two midrashim, two rabbinic interpretations, to explain what words were said. First he suggests that these were the words of the Adversary, the celestial being that was God’s enemy, meant to challenge God. The Adversary said that Abraham wasn’t “devout enough” and wouldn’t even sacrifice those that he loved if God commanded him to do so, leading to this test by God. Second, Rashi suggests that these were words between brothers Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was giving Isaac a hard time because he was circumcised at only eight days old, while Ishmael went through the pain of being circumcised at thirteen years old. Giving his brother a hard time, Ishmael challenged Isaac to experience pain to show his commitment to God.

No matter the words that were said that led to the binding of Isaac narrative, we are reminded that words matter. Words lead to action. This has been on my mind as bombs were sent to news networks, Democratic party leaders, and financial supporters of Democratic candidates, after the President referred to them as enemies of the state. This was on my mind all last night, following the mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and seeing the President speak – and tweet – time and time again using the word “globalist,” a dog whistle Anti-Semitic slur.

The Anti-Defamation League said that this weekend’s mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue was likely the largest mass killing of Jews in US History. They regularly speak of the escalation of hate. They teach that words of bias are at the bottom of the pyramid of hate, but that eventually leads to bias motivated violence. Words matter.

Psalm 120 says that words are like sharp arrows, like smoldering coals. Midrash explains that they are like arrows because an individual can stand in one place and his words can still harm another, no matter how far away. And they are like coals because even when the outer parts of the coal have turned to ash, the inner embers still burn. Our words do damage long after we have even forgotten what words we’ve said.

And some time after these words, a terrible action happened.

Abraham acted, without even realizing how terrible his action was. Some argue that he failed the test by participating in such an act of violence. He was so focused on the act that he couldn’t even hear an angel of God calling out to him telling him to stop. That angel of God had to intervene. Midrash even says that the angel grabbed his hand and had him slaughter a ram caught in the thickets to prevent him from harming his son. Words did not cause his action, but they led to his action.

Let us think before we speak. Lest, like arrows or coals, our words cause serious harm to one another.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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