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We cannot be Free, until we are all Free

Every year, at our Passover Seders, a ritual meal when we celebrate the Israelite journey from slavery to freedom and our own freedom today, we begin the Maggid portion of our Seders by declaring that “this year we are still slaves. Next year, may we be free.” As a child, I thought this declaration made the Seder an absurd experience. We are either free or not. We cannot celebrate freedom from oppression and still declare that we are not yet free. It was only as an adult that I came to truly understand the power of this text, for this declaration defines the Passover experience. We cannot be free until all celebrate freedom from injustice and oppression. We celebrate the Israelite journey to freedom not as a historical event, but rather as a call to action, a reminder that freedom must not stop with us. 

As Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: 

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 

All of humanity, all of God’s creations are connected. We do not – and cannot – only care about that which impacts us. We must stand up against all discrimination and injustice. Most importantly, we cannot let our success cause the suffering of another. And we must demand that justice for all.

Dr. King also wrote:

 “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.” 

That means knocking at Pharaoh’s door again and again, just as Moses did. That means continuing to declare “let my people go,” in spite of hardened hearts. And that means that each and every time we bang on Pharaoh’s door, it gets louder and louder, for at first just Moses approached Pharaoh, but with each showdown, the number of individuals that accompanied Moses increased and increased. For the power of the people is ultimately always greater than the people in power. Still, Moses understood that the Israelites’ fight for freedom couldn’t come at the expense of others. Rashi explains That the first plague of dam, blood, represented the life force of Egypt. The land was watered by the flooding of the Nile, so it was worshiped by Egyptians. Turning it to blood was not just a blow to their water resources, but to that which they considered to be divine. But Moses was uncomfortable with this reality as well. 

There is a midrash in Shemot Rabbah that teaches us that Moses was uncomfortable with God’s command to smite the river because the act represented pain and suffering. And Moses reminded God that the Nile saved him, as a baby in the basket, the basket did not submerge under the water. Instead the waters protected him. He couldn’t imagine striking that very water. I believe this midrash has an even deeper meaning. Moses is finding the possibility of harming Egyptians for the sake of Israelites’ freedom difficult to accept. Moses is asking: must we bring harm to the innocent bystander? Must we hurt those who were also scared of Pharaoh’s wrath? These are not Pharaoh’s taskmasters or courtiers. These are citizens who were scared silent. Why must they suffer? In fact, by Moses asking this, he is representing God’s own struggle. 

After all, the Torah reminds us:

“See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh” (Ex. 7:1).

God tells Moses to see yourself as a representative of God to Pharaoh. As Moses struggles with harming those who are innocent bystanders, he acknowledges that this isn’t something that God wants either. In fact, Mesechet Megillah tells of when the Israelites crossed the split sea into freedom and says that God’s angels were celebrating. God chastises the angels as the Egyptians are drowning in the sea:

“God, said to them: ‘My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?'”

It is clear that God is equally uncomfortable with the suffering of others. As God and Moses teach us through midrash, we cannot celebrate when others are harmed. We cannot celebrate when our freedom is caused by another’s pain and suffering. The freedom of one cannot be caused by the suffering of another. This is our struggle. The Torah also tells us that when the Israelites left Egypt, they did not leave alone:

“And a mixed multitude went up with them” (Ex. 12:38). 

The Torah reveals that the reason so many left Egypt was because an erev rav, a mixed multitude of individuals, joined with the Israelites. Egyptians who dealt with their own hardships and pain and suffering also set out to leave Egypt and were also freed from Pharaoh’s rule. In the end, it was not just the Israelites who were freed. It was all who suffered from injustice. 

Moses and God agonized over the pain and suffering that others felt because they understood that one cannot be free unless we are all free. One cannot suffer while the other succeeds. That is not true freedom. That is not true justice. May we learn from God’s and Moses’ hesitation. Let Martin Luther King’s legacy snap us out of complacency. As Rev. William Barber reminds us: 

“In recent years, NGOs and government officials have sanitized Dr. King’s legacy, turning his birthday into a call for service. Meanwhile, politicians of all stripes stand up at podiums to honor Dr. King, but then pass vulgar policies that threaten the very soul of our nation.”

We cannot claim to fight for justice and encourage — or at the very least ignore — racist policies. We cannot only fight for the freedom of some. For as long as injustice continues, we are still slaves. Next year, may we be free. Next year, may Dr. King’s dream finally be realized. And may we stand up to the Pharaoh’s among us until it is. 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Mister Joe’s Neighborhood

One of the most powerful experiences of our recent congregational was spending time talking to our bus driver. Mister Joe drove us from Tel Aviv to Caeserea, to Zichron Yaakov, to Haifa, to Rosh Hanikra, to Kfar Blum, to the Golan Heights, to Tiberias, to Jerusalem, to Masada and the Dead Sea, and back to Tel Aviv. Mister Joe’s story resonated with me. It began by asking him his name, knowing that it wasn’t Mister Joe. He explained that he called himself that because it made the American tourists that he always drove around more comfortable. 

His name was Joulwan and he resided in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. Mister Joe is an Israeli Arab. He explained to me that his passport was Jordanian, as he lived in East Jerusalem prior to 1967 when it was still under Jordan’s control. As a result, his grandchildren don’t have any passport. He shared with me that he has a home in the West Bank, but it has become an Israeli settlement, thus making it illegal for him to live in that house. 

Mister Joe told me he was not angry with Israel, but with its leaders. He was not supportive of the PA’s leadership because he didn’t think Abbas really wanted peace. He was frustrated with politicians that were only interested in themselves and no one else. He said if Abbas and Netanyahu were not involved, then he and his Israeli Jewish neighbors, who he gets along with well, would be able to solve everything and be fine. But it is the leaders who get involve. It is the leaders who claim they are leading, but actually are just interested in what’s in it for them. 

The book of Exodus begins with a new Pharaoh intimidated and scared by the growing Israelite population and demands that the Hebrew midwives throw Hebrew baby boys into the river, drowning them in the process. The two midwives mentioned, Shifra and Puah, refused. This wasn’t just an act of resistance or civil disobedience. What they were really doing was seeing the humanity in another human being. They weren’t listening to the commands of authoritarians or tyrants. They were listening to God. Through Yirat Shamayim, awe of God and seeing God’s Image in the face of another, they were concerned with the wellbeing of the other. Most rabbinic commentators conclude that these Hebrew midwives were Hebrews themselves; many suggest that they were Moses’ mother and sister, Yocheved and Miriam, even if there is no textual basis for such a suggestion. Abarbanel concludes that they must be Egyptians serving as midwives for the Hebrews, seeing God in each baby that was born, regardless of ethnicity or faith.

Mister Joe taught me – at a time when so many government officials make generalizations about those that are different than us – that it is those government officials, those so called leaders, that are the problem. Like the king that rises up and chooses not to know Joseph, they choose to ignore the kinship of their neighbor. But we cannot live in generalizations. It is the narrative of the individual, the Shifras and Puahs and Mister Joes among us, that helps us see the humanity in each other. 

Much of what Mister Joe has experienced is not fair. He should be mad. He should be angry. But he is content. He is happy. And he works to build peace through his relationships with his neighbors. So we must ignore the commands of the new kings that rise up around us and work to find God’s image in each other, Jew and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian, Hebrew Midwife and Israelite. Then, and only then, will we know peace. May it happen Speedily in our time. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Ignoring Hate Has Consequences

Many gathered around the Thanksgiving table last week grateful for life’s blessings. Breaking bread with family and friends, we were not only thankful for the turkey and stuff, but especially thankful for those in our lives. However, many of us also concluded the Thanksgiving holiday thankful for “surviving” it. We had much to be thankful for, but we survived the great uncle who always says something racist, or the cousin whose world view is completely different than ours. These meals are often like ticking time bombs waiting for one bigoted comment too many to finally cause someone to explode. We fear these holiday meals because we no longer sit at the table with those we disagree with. We share our tables with those who share our values. We don’t have sacred disagreements. They are emotionally exhausting. So we bite our tongues and hope that that xenophobic relative behaves himself.

This past Shabbat, when reading Parashat Vayishlach, we read of Esau’s reunion with Jacob. Furious and angry over his brother pretending to be him to steal a blessing from their father, Esau seemed determined to harm and hurt his brother only chapters ago. Yet, upon seeing his brother, and his brother’s family, Esau runs to Jacob and embraces him. They hug, kiss, and weep together. The rabbis go out of their way to be critical of Esau, since Judaism sees him as the polar opposite of Jacob and they try to celebrate Jacob as a biblical patriarch. Yet Esau should truly be celebrated. He is a shining example of how to forgive and not hold a grudge. We should all learn from his example. Still, I can’t help but think that Esau failed in some way. Esau hugging and kissing his brother shouldn’t be that remarkable, but it is because he stays in contact with someone who harmed him. When someone says something offensive, we unfriend them. We block them on social media. We think their views are offensive. And maybe they are. But we never tell them.

This past week, as part of the Anti-Defamation League’s Glass Leadership Institute, which I am honored to be a part of, I had the privilege of learning from Jason Sirois, ADL’s director of No Place for Hate. I am proud that we worked to bring the No Place for Hate educational program to South Orange Middle School eighteen months ago. Sirois joked about the all too commonplace “Thanksgiving eye roll,” when a relative says something that is hurtful to you or to someone else — something that is rooted in prejudice or bias — and you just roll your eyes because your family has expected that, well, that’s just how your relative is. And it is easier to ignore than confront.

But that’s how we got here. By ignoring instead of confronting. When the leader of the free world tweets such offensive comments so frequently that we’ve stopped calling them out, we just roll our eyes. When people in positions of power have abused their power to sexually assault others, and for too long we have ignored it and not called it out, causing many to be fearful of coming forward, fearing being doubted, challenged, blamed or shamed. We didn’t call it out because we say we like their movies, of that we appreciate their journalism, or we ignore it because they promised us tax cuts, and as a result, we normalize it. We normalize violent behavior and we normalize bigoted beliefs. When meeting with Jason Sirois of the ADL, he explained that bias leads to prejudice, which leads to discrimination, which leads to violence, which leads to genocide.

So don’t think that ignoring that which is harmful doesn’t have consequences. We must always have room to forgive and believe that people can change. That’s the lesson we learn from Esau. But he still failed because he never called out Jacob for his hurtful actions and words. In fact, even in his initial anger after learning that his brother tricked their father into giving him a blessing, even when he declares that he wants to kills Jacob, the text says Vayomer Esav Belibo, Esau says this in his heart. He keeps his feelings to himself. He never shares his hurt, his heartache, his pain, his anger. He never shares why his is offended.

And then he returns and hugs, kisses, and embraces Jacob. Loving family — no matter what — is important. But if we roll our eyes, and simply ignore that which is hurtful to be said and spread, then we are condoning such hate. The Talmud reminds us that silence is tantamount to consent. It is physically and emotionally exhausting to call out such hate and bigotry all the time. But ignoring it has consequences and leads to that which is far worse.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Don’t Claim to be Righteous When You are Just being Selfish

One of my favorite television shows is The Walking Dead. I am glad I am not alone in this, since it’s one of the most watched dramas on cable. The show tells the story of survival of a group of strangers who have become family, trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. I started watching believing it was a horror series, but despite the amazing make up and special effects, it is much more than that. It focuses on what one is willing to do in order to survive. And there are moments in the story where things seem normal to the viewer. There was the season where Rick and his friends set up a garden and a farm and were again living off the land. There was another moment when they were living in a gated community in modern homes, relying on solar panels to once again have electricity. They were eating freshly cooked meals around dining room tables. They were sleeping in king-sized beds on freshly washed sheets. For a moment, all was well in the world and you forgot the realities of this dystopian future. Then someone got bit by a “walker” and the terrible reality set in again. The characters realized that it was truly impossible to “play house” when the world around them – and the realities of that world – were destroyed.

I thought of my love for this pop culture phenomenon when reading Parashat Noach, this past week’s Torah portion, which tells the story of Noah building an ark to survive the deadly flood of forty days and forty nights. The Torah portion begins with the explanation that Noah was a righteous and simple person in his generation. Much inked has been spilled exploring what this means, debating how righteous Noah was exactly. Was he especially righteous because he didn’t give in to the peer pressure of doing wrong just as those around him did? Was he judged on a bell curve, only seen as righteous compared to those around him, but not compared to other righteous individuals in past or future generations? This is a question that without a doubt Noah asks of himself following the consequential flood.

The rarely taught in Hebrew School post-flood narrative shows the dark acceptance of a dystopian reality, much like the survivors of a zombie apocalypse. Noah exits the ark and immediately plants a vineyard. A verse later, the Torah tells us that he gets drunk and reveals his nakedness, and that his own child exposes his nakedness. Clearly, Noah is so inebriated, that he is unable to control his actions, or those of others. This was not a spontaneous decision to drink in excess. Anyone who has ever made their own wine knows that it takes time to till the soil, plant the vineyard, wait for the vines to grow, wait for them to bear fruit, wait for the grapes to ferment, wait for the wine to age in a dark area, and then eventually drink it. This is a months – if not years – long process. Noah knew exactly what he was doing, and this was his first action once he exited the ark. He did not declare how blessed he was to be saved. He did not thank God for the opportunity to repopulate the earth. Instead, he saw a world of doom and destruction, a world where he and his family were all that was left of humanity, and couldn’t live in this world without being intoxicated. If he did, then he would see the dismay and devastation; if he did, then he would realize that it was his fault.

One of the reasons that biblical commentator Rashi suggests that Noah would not be viewed as righteous compared to Abraham is because when Abraham hears that God is going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah, he stands up to God and fights to save the masses. He acknowledges the wrong doing of some, but fights for all – including the strangers that he doesn’t know. Noah is told by God to build an ark because a flood will annihilate the world and Noah doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t question, debate, or argue with God. He just builds the ark, relieved that he and his family will be spared. Only after the flood does he realize that this world is impossible to live in alone. He has survivor’s guilt, not just because he survived and others did not, but because he had the ability and opportunity to help others and chose to remain silent.

How often are we only concerned with how something directly impacts us? How often do we ignore the suffering if we are not harmed, or worse benefit because of that suffering? How often do we forget the teaching of our Mishnah, that if we only look at for ourselves, then who are we?

If we are not concerned with the millions that may lose healthcare as a result of cheaper monthly premiums for us, then we are not so righteous? If we are okay with ignoring the many programs that will be cut that help those who need it most in this country, just so we pay less in taxes, then we are not so righteous. If we ignore the pain and heartache of others for our own gain, then we are not so righteous. It took Noah until the world was completely wiped out to realize that he was wrong. He didn’t realize that his seemingly righteous actions were quite selfish until it was too late. Let us not make the same mistake. Let us not ignore the rights of others and try to justify it through religious conviction. Let us not threaten he most vulnerable among us and claim to still walk in God’s ways. Let us not be complacent with hurting others for our own gain and advancement. Let us not claim to be righteous when we spend so much of our time being selfish. Let’s begin by caring about others before we care for ourselves. Otherwise, we will end up regretting our actions or inactions, our decisions, and our votes, but it will be too late.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Yom Kippur Sermons

Shana Tova! I continue to be on a spiritual high for a meaningful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I hope you feel a sense of hope as well as we begin the new year.

For those who are interested, here are the sermons I shared with the Congregation Beth El community during Yom Kippur 5778. The first – delivered on Kol Nidre – deals with teh struggle of loneliness and is inspired by the musical, “Dear Evan Hansen.” The second delivered on Yom Kippur day prior to the Yizkor service, forces us to question how we will be remembered when we leave this world.

I look forward to your comments and feedback.

Kol Nidre 5778: You Will Be Found

Yom Kippur 5778: Who Will Mourn For You?

Wishing you a happy and healthy new year!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Rosh Hashanah Sermons

Shana Tova! For those who are interested, here are the sermons I shared with the Congregation Beth El community during Rosh Hashanah 5778. The first deals with my own personal struggle as a parent having a child in the hospital and understanding our liturgy so that we don’t necessarily change our fates, but change our perspectives. The second deals with the rise of hate and anti-Semitism in this country and ponders what our responsibility as Jews and as humanity is to fight back against such hate.

I look forward to your comments and feedback.

Rosh Hashanah Day One 5778: Accepting Our Fate

Rosh Hashanah Day Two 5778: When Awe Becomes Fear 

Wishing you a happy and healthy new year!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Celebrating and Welcoming Everyone

This article was originally published on June 26th, 2017, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

I received two phone calls in recent months, one from a good friend from college who is a lawyer and the other from my cousin who is a speech and language pathologist. Each had been asked to officiate at a wedding of a friend, so they called me, a rabbi who has officiated many weddings, for advice. They wanted to understand the different traditional Jewish rituals so that they could incorporate them into a meaningful wedding experience. They went online to get “ordained,” making sure that their weddings were legal in the states they took place, in addition to being legal “according to the laws of Moses and the people of Israel.” Neither of these weddings were interfaith weddings. In each case, the couple wanted someone to stand under the chuppah with them that they were deeply connected to, and also to have the ceremony be meaningful and sacred. These were also clearly conscious choices to not have a rabbi — or other clergy member for that matter — officiate. This was about the established institutions in the Jewish community failing to bring these families in.

To be honest, I am not interested in having a discussion about rabbinic officiation at weddings in this forum, mostly because writing an opinion piece on a website is not the appropriate format for such a conversation. As it is, I expect plenty who will comment in agreement and disagreement. But as we’ve seen over these past several weeks in recent articles and op-eds, this conversation is filled with a multitude of opinions. Some are from a halakhic perspective, and some from a sociological one, some from personal experiences of joy, and some from personal experiences of hurt and heartache. All needs to be a part of any conversation in guiding one’s understanding of this. This conversation should be had in a appropriate way with respectful dialogue, respectful of one’s beliefs, but most importantly, of one’s choices. This conversation is not about hypotheticals. This conversation is about actual individuals and their choices.

I appreciate colleagues Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavieand Rabbi Roly Matalon for finding ways that they feel comfortable with to celebrate the wedding of members of their community, even if one of the partners in that couple does not identify as Jewish. However, I turn back to the experiences of these two friends who called me and are now officiating at weddings just as I am and realize that the problem is deeper, if rabbis aren’t being called to officiate at weddings, even when both partners identify as Jewish. Yes, if a rabbi officiates at a wedding and participates in a couple’s most meaningful and sacred moments, whether both members of a couple are Jewish or not, then it is much easier to help that couple become involved in the Jewish community and navigate Jewish experiences. As someone who understands the importance of halakha as a guide to Jewish living and Jewish ritual, I also understand the complexity of a halakhic framework at times. And I know that it is much more difficult and challenging, and arguably hypocritical, for a rabbi – including me – to say “I cannot officiate at your wedding, but the day after your wedding, I want you to be involved in our community.”

Rabbi Abby Treu reminded me this week of these calls from my friends. She wrote in the New York Jewish Week that:

It turns out that in 2017, very few Jews care what rabbis say. Just look at The New York Times’ wedding announcements, and count the number of weddings performed by friends rather than clergy. Or ask around to find out how many people ask a rabbi when they have a question of Jewish law, and how many more turn to Rav Google.

 

The question then is not “What should rabbis do? Officiate at interfaith weddings or not?” The question is: “What does it mean to be a rabbi at all?” And its corollary: “How can rabbis create connection and community for what I call “Jews and those who love us”?

Standing under the chuppah is one way to create connection and community. But it’s also only one way. My responsibility as rabbi and I believe the responsibility of every synagogue is to create connection and community for all who walk through the synagogue doors. As you enter our lobby at Congregation Beth El, it says exactly that:

We welcome people of all ages, genders and backgrounds to join us on our journey – learned and novice; born Jewish, Jew-by-choice, or non-Jewish living Jewishly; single or partnered; gay or straight. We hope that all who enter find a Makom Kadosh – a holy space – in which to seek God, connection, and community.

The Jewish Theological Seminary, my alma mater, of which I am a proud alum, came out with a statement last week that I was particularly critical of. First I wasn’t sure what they were trying to say – simultaneously reaffirming their age-old stance which seemed to be exclusionary while also striving to be welcoming, and using language at best missed the point and at worst was offensive. Most importantly, statements like this only make it harder for those of us in our communities to build the welcoming and inclusive institutions we strive to build. I believe this conversation is not really a conversation solely about rabbinic officiation. It is about the language we use and the culture we create. It is about how we make sure to connect with all whho identify as Jewish and all who have cast their lot with the Jewish people. It is about how we make sure all who are raising Jewish children feel welcome, regardless of their own faiths. If we fail to help people connect and we fail to create multiple entry points for them to connect, then nothing else matters.

My friend and colleague Rabbi Steven Abraham wrote in the Times of Israel this past week about his commitment to create inclusive communities. He concluded his writing with this analogy:

For years, educators have bemoaned the practice of teaching abstinence only in our school systems. To my knowledge, they did not disagree because it isn’t the best form of birth control, but because the facts on the ground tell us that our children are in relationships and they require more information than simply being told “wait till your married”.

His point is that we need to do better than just saying ‘date someone who is Jewish’ and ‘marry someone who is Jewish” or ‘rabbis won’t officiate at your wedding.’ We need to give individuals meaningful spiritual experiences and connection so that they’ll want to make Judaism a core part of their identities and their lives. We need to realize that individuals are going to make the decisions that they are going to make, the decisions that are right from them, and we need to do better as communities to accept, and yes even celebrate, those decisions. We need to do a better job to celebrate those who want to be a part of our communities and make sure that they feel welcome. We can’t just open our doors wide and say “look how welcoming we are.” We need to show it with our actions. That won’t mean the same thing for everyone and every synagogue or Jewish communal institution, but that does mean that digging our heels in the ground does not do anything to make people feel welcome. It only turns people away.

I truly believe that creating a welcoming and inclusive community is what is most important. Everything follows from that. We cannot create meaningful spiritual, sacred, educational, communal, social, and social justice experiences if we do not first ensure that someone feels welcome here. We as a Jewish community often only get one chance at making sure someone feels welcome. And if we miss that chance, then we will not be able to help someone grow in their Jewish journeys. We will not be there to help them build their Jewish homes and grow their Jewish families. We as a Jewish community – and Jewish communal leaders – must do better, to not judge other people and their life decisions, but to. Instead, we must truly welcome each and every person who we interact with, and help them navigate their own Jewish journeys, even if their journeys, and ultimately their destinations, may look different from our own personal ones.

My father, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the greatest of all my teachers, has been a leading voice in this work, and spent almost two decades as Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute/Big Tent Judaism. A number of years ago, he introduced me to their work with renowned Jewish demographer Sergio DellaPergola of Hebrew University, who calculated population projections for American Jewry through the year 2080. That study suggested that based on the status quo, the Jewish community from now until 2080 would decrease by millions. But get this: if there was no intermarriage, the population would still decrease by millions. But if the Jewish community was more welcoming and celebrated every family and welcomed them into our institutions, and truly understood the importance of outreach, then the size of the Jewish community would actually increase! This has proven to be the case.image

 

This past Shabbat, the Jewish community read from Parashat Korachand of Korach’s rebellion. Rabbinic tradition concludes that Korach’s rebellion fails because his rebellion was more of a coup to overthrow Moses as leader. But the essence of his words still resonate.

You’ve gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the rest of God’s people? (Num. 16:3).

Rashi explains that when Korach says that all of the community is holy, he means that each person heard God’s voice at Sinai. Each individual is sacred. No person is anymore closer to God than anyone else, even Moses! Each individual is holy and we should not deny the holiness of anyone or of any decision they make, because of who they love, or because their Jewish family may look a little bit different than yours.

When Moses heard this, he fell on his face (Num. 16:4).

Rashbam suggests that Moses was praying and Ibn Ezra explains that Moses did so in a fit of prophecy. But I believe the Bekhor Shor is spot on: Moses fell on his face out of shame. Moses realized that there was a part of what Korach was saying that was true, that he was seeing some people as better than others, instead of seeing each individual as sacred.

It doesn’t matter if a rabbi will officiate at a couple’s wedding if we fail to help that couple find connection to a rabbi, a synagogue, or the organized Jewish community at all. We need to ensure that everyone feels like they belong in the community. So let us no longer simply fall on our faces. Instead, let us see, and celebrate, every person as holy and welcome them in.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Why We Celebrate Pride

Last week, I marched through Maplewood Village to the steps of Town Hall with members of our community in the local South Orange-Maplewood Equality March. Waving a rainbow flag, children in our community would hold my hand as we marched together, teenagers – I’m sure slightly embarrassed that their rabbi was giving them high fives, because you know, their teenagers – leading the march, and adults proudly displaying signs that declared that “love is love is love.” But we all marched together.

Later that afternoon, someone asked me why we had the equality march in our town. I explained that it was a sister march with the Equality March in Washington DC that was taking place on the same day and at the same time. Many members of our community were at that march, and North Jersey Pride organized bussing from our synagogue to DC. For those who couldn’t travel to DC, they could march locally.

But this person clarified their question: “I understand marching in DC,” they said. “To show the government and the President and the administration the importance of Equality, marching to take a stand against any anti-LGBT discrimination or legislation. But why march in South Orange-Maplewood – in an area that is already known as welcoming to the LGBTQ community?” they asked.

TBethElPridehe act of coming out is an act of true bravery and courage. At Beth El, we celebrate this act every year at our National Coming Out Day Shabbat, where different members of our community share their coming out stories. But this act still remains an act of courage because of fears that people have: the fear of not being accepted by family, friends, religious institutions, and schools. And the fear of not being accepted by the law. For rabbis, ministers, and mayors, for parents, children, and siblings, for teachers and community leaders to march side-by-side means that one doesn’t have to hide or deny who they are. One doesn’t have to remain in the closet. One can truly just be. And this is the same reason that we, a congregation that fully embraces and celebrates our LGBTQ members, still pauses to celebrate them and acknowledge Pride.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Shelach Lecha, the biblical narrative involving twelve spies entering the land of Canaan to scout the land. God clearly tells Moses to find representatives from each tribe of Israel to scout the land. The Torah portion began with these words:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Send individuals into the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Children of Israel. (Num 13:1-2).

God tells Moses and the Israelites that God is going to give this Promised Land to the Israelites, but is still requiring the Israelites to see it for themselves, and declare it as such for themselves. When ten of the twelve scouts come back with fearful and negative reports, the Israelites do not get to enter the land. This is not because it wasn’t the Promised Land. Some rabbinic commentators suggest the Israelites didn’t have faith in God to entrust that all would be okay. Others suggest that these Israelites still had a slave mentality.

I believe they could not enter the Promised Land because it was only the Promised Land if they made it the Promised Land. It was only the Promised Land when they made it so, when those who would inhabit the land could declare it as such. Ten scouts didn’t think there was a place for them there. As a result, because these representatives did not say this was a safe space for them, others did not believe it either. The community cried out in a loud voice and wept all night.

Ultimately, it was the people who made the place. The Promised Land only became the Promised Land when those who entered it declared it to be the Promised Land. It was not because God was to give it to the Israelites. The people had to claim it as such for themselves. Similarly, this community is not simply a welcome and inclusive institution that affirms that all are loved and celebrated here because of synagogue by-laws or mission statements. We are who we are because as we enter this space, we declare that this is a sacred and holy space for all, and that all in this space are holy, that this is a Promised Land for all. To be the Promised Land for all, we must constantly declare that we are; we must constantly reaffirm that we are; we must celebrate Pride! This way, no scout will enter with fear and trepidation. Rather, all who enter can do so comfortable, as their true and full selves, made in God’s Image. May we always march and always celebrate Pride, so that our community remains a Promised Land for LBGTQ members of the community and allies. And may we constantly push ourselves so that we can strive to be more inclusive to all who walk through our doors.

Happy Pride!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Do Not Stand Idly By…

This article was originally published on May 10th, 2017, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

This past week, we had a different sort of Shehechiyanu moment. My three-year-old son was the first of our children to visit the emergency room, after slicing his finger on a sharp piece of metal. He’d return with quite the souvenir: five stitches. He was proud. He showed off his bandage of gauze and medical tape like he was a hero, and this was a necessary battle scar. As parents, my spouse and I worried and panicked. And yet, looking back, we realized that this was something small, only a laceration, and we are grateful that such an emergency room visit was a minor expense, literally a couple of bills in my wallet. I also understand that his handful of stitches on a small finger pale in comparison to the serious illnesses and diseases that others at the hospital were being treated for. I am grateful that we now live in a country where someone cannot be denied healthcare or treatment because of lack of finances or because of pre-existing conditions. I fear that this reality will change.

This past Shabbat, we read the joint Torah portion of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, which began with the command “be Holy, for I, the Lord, Your God, am Holy.” Such a command means that we must see everyone as holy and see the divine spark within each person. Therefore, denying the rights of any individual means that one refuses to acknowledge the holiness of that person, and denies that they are made in the image of God. If we are to all strive to be holy like God, then we must strive to treat each individual in the same way our faith teaches us to treat God, with sanctity, honor, and respect.

In Tractate Taanit of the Babylonian Talmud, we learn of Abba Umana, the surgeon who saves lives. The text compares him to Abaye and Rava, to great rabbis who appear throughout the Talmud and offer their own rabbinic teachings. Abaye and Rava often offer differing opinions, but it’s their opinions that often conclude rabbinic debate about a topic. More often than not, it was Abaye’s opinion that was deemed correct. Still, Abba Umana is seemingly seen as more sacred than these learned rabbis. It is taught here that Rava would receive greetings every year on Yom Kippur from the celestial beings, the angels on high, and God. The same text teaches that Abaye, whose teachings the people sided with far more than Rava, would receiving greetings from God weekly, on Shabbat evening. Abba Umana though, the surgeon, would receive these greetings every day. Abaye, upset by this wants to know why Abba Umana encounters God more frequently than he — an incredible rabbi and scholar — does. The celestial beings respond to him that “he cannot do what Abba Umana is able to do”, referring to saving a life. This helps us to understand how important and essential healthcare is in the eyes of the Talmud.

In addition to the command to be holy in last Shabbat’s Torah reading, we are also commanded “do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” (Lev. 19:15). In Tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud, we find an interpretation of this verse. The Talmud says that one must go out of one’s way to save a neighbor from danger. In fact, the Talmud says that one must even use one’s own resources to hire another individual to help assist and care for this person. The Talmud in this case is pretty clear: we have an obligation to ensure that all receive medical care, even if that means that our costs ensure that our neighbors who are ill get the medical treatment that they need and deserve.

The Torah is clear that we must do all that we can to prevent further harm to our neighbors. The Talmud goes into great detail about how we must ensure the health and safety of our neighbors, and even sees medical treatment as a holy and sacred act, with medical professionals placed on a higher level than Torah scholars. The Shulchan Aruch, often referred to as the leading Jewish law code and most widely cited law code, also confirms our halachic obligation to ensure everyone receives the healthcare they need and deserve. The Shulchan Aruch teaches that taking care of those who are ill is a religious obligation and that if a physician withholding treatment is the equivalent of bloodshed (YD 336:1). The text adds that if there is medicine that will help a sick individual, one is forbidden from charging more than what is appropriate for that medicine (YD 336:3).

I can’t speak about all the details of the latest version of the AHCA because I, like most people, haven’t read it in its entirety. I can’t speak to the economic impact it would have on our country, because the House voted on it before the CBO scored it. I can only speak as a rabbi, regarding what I believe the Torah, Talmud, and Halacha teach us. We are taught that it is our responsibility to do whatever we can to save a life. We are taught that saving a life is so important it supersedes every other mitzvah. The values of our Torah are meaningless if they do not guide us to act. Therefore, I am saddened by the House of Representative’s vote last week that makes it harder and more expensive for those with pre-existing conditions to get health care coverage. This hurts the poor and the elderly more than anyone else, but it especially hurts anyone with a pre-existing condition. And this hurts all of us, because when a law is passed that denies the rights of an individual to be treated, that denies the holiness of that individual, we fail to live up to our responsibility and obligation. When a law is passed that is antithetical to who we are as Jews and to what we stand for, then we must take a stand. We cannot stand idly by. One who saves a life, saves the world. Let us do all in our power to ensure that many lives, and many worlds are saved.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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On Your First Shabbat

I thank God that this week, my wife and I welcomed a beautiful and healthy baby girl into this world. We will officially name her in the week ahead, but I share these words of prayer as we go into your first Shabbat my child. I wrote these words years ago when your older sister was first born. They remain true on this day as we welcome you into our family and into this world, and celebrate our first Shabbat together. 

imageAvinu Shebashamayim, give me the wisdom, insight, courage, and strength to be a father to this beautiful child. You have blessed me with a child, one of Your divine creations, made in Your divine image. You have blessed me with fatherhood, now show me how. You who have provided for me my whole life, You who continues to provide for all my needs, give me the strength to provide for my daughter, strength when I am weary from sleepless nights of teething, sleepless nights of slumber parties, sleepless nights of staying out past curfew. Bless me with the wisdom to discern between tears of joy and tears of sorrow, the ability to heal a sore throat and a broken heart, the humor to make my daughter laugh with me and at me, the self-discipline to discipline her even when it eats me up inside. Lord who walks with me, allow me to walk in your ways, so that she may walk in your ways, to live a life full of the ethics and values that I want her to hold dear, to discern between right and wrong so that I can teach her the difference. Just as I hope and pray that You will bless her and protect her, permit me to bless and protect her. Most of all, My Strength, when I am not there, provide my child with the strength to protect herself, and protect others as well. Permit her to recognize the divine spark within her so that she may cling to You.

Shabbat Shalom my daughter. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

These words first appeared in Jewish Men Pray, published by Jewish Lights Publishing, and available on Amazon. 

 

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