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Society Needs to Do Some Serious Cheshbon HaNefesh

This past weekend marked the one-year anniversary of last year’s bigoted marches and protests in Charlottesville, which led to the death of Heather Heyer, and the injuries of several more. For me it led to nightmares of Klansmen, no longer concerned with hiding their faces under white hoods and instead wearing polos and khakis, with tiki torches in hand chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

And this weekend, White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis continued to spew hatred and bigotry. This time, they were just up the road in the Nation’s Capital, having received permission to hold a rally, directly in front of the White House. Only a couple dozen showed up for that so-called “Unite the Right” protest in DC, while thousands of counter-protestors were there taking a stand again bigotry. Still, the lack of attendance this weekend is not a sign of bigotry’s demise. The opposite is true.

In  The Atlantic, Adam Serwer writes about how “The White Nationalists are Winning.” The reason, he writes, is because their message is being amplified by media personalities. When cable news hosts say things like “Latin American countries are changing election outcomes here by forcing demographic change in this country” or “the America that we know and love doesn’t exist anymore because of massive demographic changes as a result of both illegal AND legal immigration,” they become the megaphone to amplify the bigoted message that American is somehow “at risk” because it is becoming more diverse.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Re’eh, and we read of two juxtaposed verses. The first verse (Deuteronomy 15:4) demands that there shall be no needy among you. This is something to strive for, something to live for. This is a goal to achieve. The second verse (Deuteronomy 15:7) tells us to not harden our hearts and shut our hands against those in need. These verses speak about more than just feeding the hungry. These verses are juxtaposed because the first speaks of a messianic dream-state, a reality that we always strive for, but we know may be out of our grasp and out of our reach. The latter, focuses on the reality, until that Gan Eden arrives, that we must fight for what is right. These verses speak of a perfect world that does not exist and how we must continue to roll up our sleeves and work, and fight, to build that world.

My colleagues and friends, Rabbi Aaron Alexander and Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, of Adas Israel Congregation in DC, hosted a press conference at their synagogue last Thursday with DC Mayor Bowser and District Police to explain how they will ensure safety and security for their building and the Jewish community as these Neo-Nazis marched into town. Rabbi Alexander quoted the prophet Amos and said: “Let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like a mighty stream,” charging the congregation and the District of Columbia, saying: “we are the water for which justice rolls, we are the stream in which righteousness can flow. All of us together.”

I do not believe in a world where hate will cease to exist. Still I pray for that world and work towards that reality. I did not believe that the bigots and racists, the anti-Semites and homophobes all changed their ways. I just believed that we lived in a society, where such hate should remain in the gutter where it belongs, and that hate and bigotry has no place in public discourse or debate. Claiming that a single race, religion, or ethnicity is above anyone else has no place in society. But these Charlottesville protesters from a year ago, and these DC protesters a year later succeeded. Their racist slurs and chants, and their anti-Semitic signs and slogans added fuel to the fire and empowered each other; to believe that hatred and bigotry in broad daylight, in public, was not only again socially acceptable, but was to be celebrated.

That is the reality that we live in. It is a far cry from the messianic dream of Deuteronomy 15:4. Which is why we have Deuteronomy 15:7, a verse that is telling us to get to work. And as the silence of the President and his administration grows deafening, as his refusal to call out such hate, and in many cases his choice to spread hate based on bigoted policies, we must get to work. To paraphrase Rabbi Aaron Alexander, it is up to us to BE the water, to BE the stream.

As we read Parashat Re’eh this past Shabbat, we also celebrated Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul. This is a time to spend this month doing Cheshbon Hanefesh, doing an internal accounting of the soul. And this country desperately needs to do some Cheshbon Hanefesh, to help us realize how we got here; to help those who come up with excuse after excuse to understand how problematic it is that we ARE here; to admit that we haven’t done enough; to admit that we have been too silent when hate didn’t directly impact us, even though all hate impacts all of us; to admit that we were concerned about being political and partisan so we refused to call out hate for what it is.

Let’s spend this month doing Cheshbon Hanefesh, let’s spend the year to come BEING the water, and BEING the stream, to rid the world of hated and bigotry, to heal this broken world.

 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Standing Up for the Angels Among Us

Sometimes you need something extraordinary, something that is literally extra ordinary, seemingly impossible and unbelievable to help us understand that which is believable, to help us appreciate that which is right in front of us that we have been told to ignore. And that is exactly what we saw as thousands of rallies took place across the country on Saturday morning to stand united in a fight to end xenophobic and discriminatory immigration policies, to stand united in the fight to keep families together. Appropriately, that is also what we read in Parashat Balak, in the weekly Torah reading this past Saturday morning – the unbelievable to help us remove the blinders from our eyes and stigma from society.

When the evil King Balak hires the magician Balaam to travel to the encampment of the Israelites and curse them, he begins his journey riding his trusted donkey. However, time and time again that donkey stops and refuses to move. Finally, as Balaam yells at and abuses the animal, the donkey unbelievably talks!

“…The angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, it turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat it to get it back on the road. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path through the vineyards, with walls on both sides. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it. So he beat the donkey again. Then the angel of the Lord moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat it with his staff. Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?’ Balaam answered the donkey, ‘You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.’ The donkey said to Balaam, ‘Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?’ ‘No,’ he said. Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown…” (Numbers 22:22-31)

For a magician who claims to cast spells and curses, it seems odd that Balaam is unable to see this angel right in his path. It is even more odd that the donkey is able to see God’s divine messenger, but Balaam is not. Ramban clarifies that because God had to uncover Balaam’s eyes, this must mean that he was not a prophet. Rashi though understands the donkey’s ability to see this angel and Balaam inability to do so as something deeper. Rashi comments that the donkey was able to see and Balaam wasn’t because God gives animals the ability to see more than human beings. He concludes that humans can’t see the angels among us because we fear that which may harm us. I believe this is teaching that some in society try to brainwash us into fearing those who are different than us. Some try to convince us that they are dangerous, or as President Trump shamefully propagates: they are rapists, drug dealers, gang members, and murderers. Animals though, without being influenced by bigotry and discrimination, are able to see the divinity and holiness of all.

A little over a week ago, ProPublica released an audio recording of children separated from their families, crying out alone in these detention centers. You could hear the children crying out again and again: “Mami! Papá!” And then you hear a border patrol agent laugh as he refers to the cries as an orchestra, suggesting that the only thing missing is a conductor. Because when you are taught to fear something, or someone, when you have a trickle down xenophobia that demands the separation of families and the incarceration of children, we – these border agents, our government, and many in society – fear even children when they enter our country. Like Balaam, they then can’t see God standing right there in front of them. They cannot see the divine spark calling out for their parents. And if we cannot see God in the eyes of our children, then we will stop seeing God in this world.

At the beginning of the book of Exodus, the tyrant Pharaoh also demanded the separation of children from their parents. Pharaoh directed midwives to separate newborns from their parents, even going as far as to kill the newborn baby boys. But two midwives, Shifra and Puah, stood up and refused. They said no. They were not leaders of a revolution or resistance. They were the members of society who refused to ignore and execute the discriminatory policies being implemented. They refused to be silent. They refused to be complacent. They saw the angel standing right there in front of them in the eyes of those children when Pharaoh could not – that same angel that Balaam could not see, that ICE cannot see, that the President cannot see, that, as a result, far too many in our country refuse to see. We must be like Shifra and Puah and fight for these children, and their families. Sometimes it takes a talking donkey – or spending Shabbat protesting with thousands – to teach us how to see God’s presence within each other.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The same law for citizens and sojourners

childDetentionCenterIf there were 2300 children separated from their parents without any tracking system, without even knowing where they are, without having any way to reunite them with their families, and they were white children, American citizens, government officials would be arrested and tried for trafficking children. If we kept American children in cages, the entire country would be up in arms. But they are not, so the government tries to convince us that somehow, their actions are completely justified. They suggest that the laws that are meant to protect our civil rights and human rights don’t apply to them. Somehow, these laws are meant to keep us safe from them. But these are children. And they are human beings. Forget for a second about supposed laws that have been broken. Think instead about how many hearts and souls this administration has broken, the broken souls of babies, of parents, of our nation.

Today a federal judge ordered immigration agencies to quickly begin reunifying these families that have been separated due to Trump’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy. While such an order is a positive step in the right direction, that does not change the President’s intentions of using his executive powers to treat someone human beings as animals, as inferior, as profane.

Last Shabbat, Jewish communities read around the world the Torah portion of Chukat. Parashat Chukat focuses on two well-known biblical narratives, Moses’ striking of a rock and the death of Aaron. However, the Torah portion begins with a list of seemingly outdated laws regarding the ritual impurity. Regardless of the laws or the reasoning behind these laws, the text is clear that laws regarding the sanctity and holiness of individuals apply equally to all individuals:

“This shall be the same law for citizens and sojourners who reside among you” (Numbers 19:10).

Ibn Ezra, the 12th century Torah commentator from Northern Spain, explained that “even the strangers who reside among them must abide by this rule, for the land of Israel is holy, since the Presence of God dwells there.” However, such biblical law was to be followed while the Israelites wandered in the wilderness prior to entering the promised land. While I appreciate Ibn Ezra’s explanation, it had nothing to do with where one resides. For many like myself who believe in God, or at least wrestle with God, we believe that the Divine doesn’t reside in a specific place. God is everywhere and all are made in God’s image. Here too then, we must understand that one human being must be treated the same way as another. The same law must apply equally to citizens and sojourners who reside among us. While the President may be quick to point out the laws of American citizens do not apply to these immigrants who are being detained, certainly citizens and sojourners have the same basic human rights, and thus must be treated as such. To disagree with this is to deny the divine spark within each person. These ‘zero-tolerance’ policies exemplify how morally corrupt we have become. As mentioned, not only have we broken the souls of separated parents and children, but we have broken the soul of this nation. And a soulless nation doesn’t see the Godliness of each child. A soulless nation puts children in cages.

But I believe that we are better than that. I believe society is better than that. That is why we continue to fight — to build a society where the same basic laws and human rights apply to citizens and sojourners alike, to see the divine spark in each individual, to build communities not cages, to build bridges not walls. May we continue to fight to reunite each child unconscionably taken from their parents. May we continue to fight to end a system that incarcerates children. And may we continue to fight until the sanctity of each human being, regardless of ethnicity, race, or immigration status, is recognized and celebrated.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Stop Using the Bible to Justify Discrimination!

This past Sunday, my family asked me what I wanted to do for Father’s Day. First of all, I acknowledge that Father’s Day is a “Hallmark” holiday. In my family, it is an opportunity to simply spend the day together, something that I often don’t get to do on Sundays when I am working during the school year. So when my kids asked if I wanted breakfast in bed that morning, I responded that instead, I wanted to protest against discrimination and bigotry.

My wife and I joined hundreds at the ICE Detention Center in Elizabeth, with our daughter carrying a sign she made herself that read “Keep families together,” our preschooler on my shoulders, and our toddler in a stroller, because we couldn’t celebrate family without fighting for those whose families are being torn apart by discriminatory policies.

This past Shabbat, we read from Parashat Korach, beginning with chapter 16 of the book of Numbers. While Korach was a failed leader, his words still resonate and claims are still worthwhile. He challenged Moses:

“You have gone too far! For all the community are holy. All of them, and God is in their midst” (Num. 16:3).

OlitzkyFamilyRally1Every disturbing decision, policy, and action of this President and his administration regarding the treatment of immigrants represent the antithesis of this verse and of all that our Torah represents. We are commanded to welcome the stranger. We are commanded to love the stranger. And as we read last Shabbat, we are told that each and every member of the community is holy. Yet, the President, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Secretary, even the Press Secretary, defend these actions, and justify them by quoting the Bible.

Stop using biblical verses to justify discrimination!

I understand the irony that I am quoting the Bible to justify loving the stranger and welcoming immigrants while calling out hiding behind biblical quotes to try and justify bigotry. However, that is because one can find scriptural verses of any faith tradition if they tried hard enough that supports or opposes any opinion. You can skew anything to justify your claims. But just because you can find a specific verse and interpret it, or misinterpret it, to mean something, that does not mean that it justifies one’s bigotry.

No religion justifies separating parents from children. Children are our most vulnerable in society. Religion is focused on educating our children, caring for our children, and preparing them for adulthood to live a life full of values and to look out for their fellow human beings. Religion never justifies tearing children away from their families and locking them in cages. If you use biblical verses to justify that, then you are not practicing religion. You are desecrating God’s name, all that faith teaches, and all that faith is supposed to represent.

So I will keep quoting that the Bible tells us to protect our children and to love the stranger. Because to believe that God expects and requires anything else, anything less than that is morally corrupt.

The problem is rooted in those in charge themselves. When Korach rises up to question Moses’ leadership, he does so with many individuals. The text says that he is joined by Anshei Shem, translated as individuals of repute, literally ‘people of name.’ These were individuals whose names were known, whose names, family lineage, and thus privilege, gave them power. They stood beside Korach in demand of more power.

Rabbi Neftali Tzvi of Ropshitz taught that a person of a great name, one who is a descendant of a famous or distinguished relative, should be humble. He should think “are my deeds as great as my ancestors who have come before me?” However, these people end up being arrogant, always seeking to increase their power.

Those is positions of power can use their power for good, to build a more just society, to be God’s partner in creation. Or, they can abuse their power, weakening the most vulnerable. It is shameful that those in positions of power aren’t using their power to help those in need. They are incarcerating children, discriminating against those seeking asylum, and trying to claim that the Bible justifies these actions.

Not my Bible. Not my religion. Not my God. If you are going to pass bigoted policies, stop hiding behind scripture to mask your discrimination. Call it was it is: bigotry.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Pride and Teshuvah

Grasshoppers. Our Torah, in Parashat Shelach Lecha, read last Shabbat, emphasizes that we saw ourselves as grasshoppers. Moses is commanded to send out twelve scouts to scout out the promised land. While Caleb and Joshua give favorable remarks, ten return and say:

“All the people that we saw in the land were of great size – we saw giants there – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Num. 12: 32-33).

Clearly, if we see ourselves as grasshoppers, we fear others see us this way as well. But we never stop to acknowledge why we might see ourselves as grasshoppers and who or what might cause us to think of ourselves as grasshoppers. When we are told that something is wrong with us, we begin to feel that something is wrong with us, we believe that something us wrong with us.

PrideFlagsInLobbyI posted on Instagram at the beginning of the month – because if you know me, you know that I regularly post on social media. (Shameless plug: feel free to follow me @JMOlitzky and everything Congregation Beth El related #BethElNJ). I had posted a picture of our Pride flags hanging in our synagogue lobby as we kicked off Pride month. A rabbinic colleague reached out following my post and asked about why we proudly hang our pride flags. The Jewish community already knows that you are welcoming and inclusive, he said. After all, you are located in South Orange-Maplewood, he said. And this my friends, is the problem with most religious institutions. We thinking it is good enough to be welcoming. We think it is acceptable just to be accepting.

Too many of our institutions refuse to acknowledge the hurt and pain that we have caused. So many of our synagogues and churches, schools, camps, and youth groups caused so much pain to our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer community members for so long. We not only turned away so many amazing individuals from organized religion and God, but also pushed a hetero-normative culture, and hid behind a specific verse of scripture – or a particular rabbinic interpretation of said verse – to suggest that there was something wrong with them because of who they love or how they identify. Our communities are at fault for far too long treating our loved ones, our community members who identify as gay, trans, bi, queer, gender non-binary or gender fluid, as grasshoppers.

AndGodCreatedLGBTQAnd too many institutions, too many houses of worship refuse to even do teshuvah and acknowledge the pain that we caused on generations of members of our communities. It is amazing how many religious communities celebrate the LGBTQ community. At the recent North Jersey Pride Festival, there were five synagogues and three churches present! It is not enough to just condone our community members. It is not enough to just accept our community members. We celebrate. We wave our pride flags high to celebrate. We recite pride blessings to celebrate. We participate in the Pride Festival to celebrate. We celebrate as a way of doing teshuvah. We celebrate so that no one here should ever feel as if they are grasshoppers. We celebrate so we all always feel like giants. We celebrate so that every home we enter, whenever we stand on the precipice of our promised lands, we don’t have to fear entering that new land or fear coming out of the closet. Rather, we celebrate each and every person, and in doing so, we celebrate our faith in God because we celebrate our faith in ourselves, being created in God’s image.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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What the Four Children Can Teach us about Gender Fluidity

This article was originally published on March 19, 2018, on the Keshet Blog at MyJewishLearning.com. The full article can be found on their website here.

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Q: We are taught to ask questions at the Passover seder. We are not instructed to give answers because answers aren’t the essential part of the seder experience. It’s the asking of questions that is most important. The four children ask a variety of questions that represent their identities and relationship with supposed societal norms.

The second Q in LGBTQQIAA stands for questioning, when someone questions their sexual orientation, gender identity, or isn’t sure how to label themselves. The four children represent the wide spectrum of gender identity and understands that we do not live in a binary gender system.

The Haggadah refers to four children: the chacham, the rasha, the tam, and the She’Ano Yode’a Lishol, often referred to as the Wise One, the Wicked One, the Simple One, and the One who Doesn’t Know How to Ask. However, these labels couldn’t be further from the truth. These labels represent that which is expected of them, or the societal stereotypes put on them. If we look at the four children as a way to gain insight and come to understand the fluidity of gender, these labels are placed on these children by a binary gender normative society. These labels don’t reflect truly who these children are. Rather, they reflect how society has forced them to conform for too long.

What does the Chacham ask? “What are the testimonials, statues, and laws God commanded you?” You should tell this child about the laws of Passover, that one may not eat dessert after eating the Passover offering.

The supposed ‘Wise One’ is hardly smart. This child simply accepts societal norms. The Wise One was taught not to question, but rather only to do what was told. The Wise One fits into a set system and falls into the stereotypes of this system. The Wise One is certainly cisgender — someone whose identity conforms with the gender associated with their biological sex – but also is only able to see and understand a gender binary system. This child isn’t wise at all; wisdom is misconstrued here as “conventional wisdom.” This child is not interested in pushing societal norms. Unfortunately, it’s these supposed “wise” children that are responsible for promoting transphobia. They are the ones who should be labeled “wicked.”

What does the Rasha say? “What does this mean to you?” To you and not to the child. Since this child chooses to be excluded from the community, this child has denied a basic principle of Judaism. You should blunt the child’s teeth and say: “It is for the sake of this that God did for me when I left Egypt. For me and not for you. If you were there, you would not have been redeemed.”

Wicked is not a fair definition of this child. We tend to think of those who are inexplicably evil as wicked: murderers, terrorists, dictators, etc. There is nothing that this child does that is evil. Yet our tradition uses this label because the child questions societal norms. The supposed ‘Wicked One’ does so in hopes of finding purpose. This child doesn’t settle for societal parameters or stereotypes. Instead, this child challenges norms, to find meaning to accept one’s true self. This child is far from wicked. Maybe that is how Judaism traditionally referred to this child. But, this child is simply transgender or gender non-binary — someone whose gender expression or gender identity differs from the sex one was assigned at birth, someone whose identity is different from the stereotypes of society. This child though doesn’t deserve to be labeled or discriminated. This child must be loved, just like every other child.

What does the tam say? “What’s this?” You should say to the child, “With a strong hand God took me out of Egypt, from the house of servitude.”

The supposed ‘Simple One’ has been taught something their whole lives and only now has

been exposed to something else. The Simple One never knew about the diversity of the gender spectrum. It is our job to offer a simple explanation to a simple question; to educate the Simple One by teaching our children about the gender spectrum. A study from the Medical University of Vienna reveals that there is a neurological distinction between gender identity and biological sex. This scientific study is the basis of what we should teach our children – that we don’t live in a binary gender system, that gender is fluid.

And the She’Ano Yode’a Lishol, you begin, as the Torah says, “And you should tell your child on that day, saying ‘It is because of what God did for me when I went out of Egypt.’”

The child who is silent is not silent out of ignorance. This child is silent out of fear. This child grew up in a society that taught that one cannot challenge the binary gender system, that one’s gender identity must be related to their biological sex. However, silence is scary. A study by the Williams Institute reveals that 41% of transgender youth have attempted suicide, compared to 4.6% of the overall population of this country. But a study out of the University of Washington suggests that transgender youth that are supported and loved by their families, teachers, friends, and clergy are no more anxious or depressed than any other child their age. This study reveals that love and acceptance saves lives. This child is silent because this child remains in the closet. The child is closeted because of fear of exclusion or rejection by community. We must respond to this child’s silence by simply showing this child love and support, and honoring who they are, made in God’s image.

At our seder tables, on a holiday that celebrates freedom, we still declare: This year we are still slaves. Next year, may we be free people.

This year, despite progress that we as a society and as a Jewish community have made, transphobia, homophobia, hate, and bigotry still exist. May we continue to build inclusive communities so that next year, we can celebrate the uniqueness of all of us.

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Action item at the Seder: Go around the table and ask each person what their preferred gender pronouns are. To ensure that all around the Seder table feel welcome, make sure that you refer to them in a way that corresponds to their gender identity.

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There is Nothing Sacred about Guns

V’Asu Li Mikdash, V’Shachanti B’tocham. Make for me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.

Parashat Terumah focuses on the Israelites giving a variety of gifts so that they may build the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness. But God explains that doing so allows God to dwell among them. We build buildings, but God does not reside in these buildings. Sometimes we need to build buildings to help us see the divine spark within ourselves and our communities. This reminds us that God resides within People, not a single place. That means it is within the power of the people then to act on God’s behalf. God dwells among us.

17 students and faculty were murdered on Wednesday, victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Children who are scared to go to school. Teachers are wearing Kevlar vests at work. Parents worry that every goodbye each morning may be their last. Many demographics are impacted and effected by gun violence. And there is much demand about what laws should be passed. But can we at least talk about children? Children are the most vulnerable in our society. This may not be the case with other species; birds leave the nest once they can fly. Other mammals learn to hunt for themselves as soon as they are able to walk. But about human beings, our children remain dependent on parents, caregivers, teachers, and community. Children are not expected to take care of themselves, defend themselves, and protect themselves. That is on us. That is our job.

Just as Parashat Terumah focuses on the building of the Tabernacle, the traveling sanctuary in the wilderness, the Haftarah reading for this Torah portion, taken from I Kings focuses on Solomon building the Temple in Jerusalem. In the middle of instructions and dimensions of the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple, the Haftarah clearly states:

When the House was Built, only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the House while it was being built (I Kings 6:7). 

The rabbis introduce the concept of a shamir, a worm that was able to eat away at stone. Since iron tools weren’t permitted in shaping these stones, rabbinic literature explains that Solomon used this worm to eat at the edges of these stones to make them smooth and not jagged. Mishnah Avot suggests that such a creature was so miraculous that it must’ve been created by God immediately prior to Shabbat during the week of creation.

The Talmud clarifies that the reason King Solomon used such a worm, instead of hammers and axes, was because the Temple was a place that promoted peace – a place that celebrated God’s presence – and thus, one shouldn’t use tools that promoted bloodshed, war, and violence. Because you cannot claim something is holy if it promotes violence. You cannot cling to objects and argue that they are holy when these objects that cause harm are antithetical to the teachings of our faith. But this is where we are at as a society. I thought things would change almost twenty years ago with the Columbine shooting. We all thought things would change five year ago following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. But nothing has changed. In fact, things have gotten worse. Because our society clings to their guns.

While we read of instructions to build the Tabernacle in the wilderness, it is only chapters later that the Israelites build the golden calf, read in Parashat Ki Tissa. How is it possible that only chapters after God instructs the Israelites to build a sacred space, they abandon God by worshipping idols.? After being enslaved in Egypt for 400 years, they were only accustomed to worshipping idols and it was difficult to change. It is a reminder to all of us how difficult it is, despite the verses of scripture that we may espouse, to rid ourselves of the idols among us that we worship.

We are stuck in this vicious cycle of gun violence because we live in a country that worships guns. The religion of guns is controlled by gun manufacturers, whose goal is not to protect lives, but instead to sell more guns. Rather than being guided by ethics and values of scripture taught by clergy, the religion of guns is guided by the NRA and lobbyists who fatten the pockets of elected officials, ensuring inaction continues, and this epidemic of gun violence continues as well. And those who practice the religion of guns, Avodah Zarah, Idol Worship, also forget the essence of what our faith teaches us, that something that promotes war and violence cannot be sacred.

The Haftarah clarifies that which causes harm to others cannot be sign as sacred. And as the Torah portion teaches, sacred space is not about buildings, it is about people. It’s about community. It is not about armed guards or metal detactors in our schools either. It is about changing society, and doing all that is possible to prevent harmful tools from ending up in the hands of those who will use them to cause harm. And I don’t understand the argument of “It’s not about guns. It’s about people.” To me it’s about making it harder for people who will use objects to cause harm to gain access to them. But don’t listen to me. Listen to Carly Novell, 17, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School:

“I was hiding in a closet for 2 hours. It was about guns. You weren’t there. You don’t know how it felt. Guns give these disgusting people the ability to kill other human beings. This IS about guns,” she said. “And this is about all the people who had their life abruptly ended because of guns.” 


V’Shachanti B’tocham. And I will dwell among them. God is found among the people. So it is up to the people. It is up to us, God’s partners in creation, to end our society’s obsession with worshipping idols, to change a society where the right to own a gun is more important than the right to live. It is up to us, to do better, to be better. God expects that of us. And so does our children.

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Songs of Resistance

There’s a great story told about Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech. His words may have echoed off the marble pillars of the Lincoln Memorial when he preached his “I Have a Dream” speech fifty-four years ago. But according to Kingʼs speechwriter, Clarence B. Jones, those were not the words he had planned to share. Kingʼs speech was all set the night before. Sitting in his hotel room with seven advisors, his words were put on paper and the press was given advanced copies. And his speech that day on the March on Washington began the same with Reverend King carefully sticking to the script. However, after a brief moment of silence, Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who sang at the event earlier in the day, shouted to Dr. King, “tell ʻem about the dream, Martin.” Dr. King was startled and flustered, but stuck to the script. Again, Mahalia Jackson called out, “Martin, tell ‘em about the dream!”  Next thing you know, King pushed aside the text and shifted gears. The speechwriter leaned over to the person next to him and said: “the people donʼt know it yet, but they’re about to go to church.”

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of learning with Rev. William Barber, when he taught Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox rabbis and rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He retold this story and referred to Mahalia Jackson not a Gospel singer, but as a theomusicologist. He said that Dr. King would sometimes call her up in the middle of the night, wake her when he couldn’t sleep, and say, “I need to hear the Lord’s voice.” She would sing, and that ease his anxiety, knowing that God was with him. A theomusicologist. This term suggests that there is something holy, something divine, about singing. This suggests that singing is an act of praying, but also, like prayer, singing is meant to lead to action.

On Shabbat Shira, we read of two such theomusicologists: Miriam in the Torah reading and Deborah in the Haftarah reading. Miriam and Devorah are both called prophetesses; in fact they are two of only five women in the entire Bible referred to as female prophets. Clearly, their song and action is divinely inspired. Deborah is even mentioned as a judge, the only female judge in the entire Hebrew bible, further supporting the case that through her songs, she fights for justice. And these women leaders acted through music to lead the resistance. While it was Moses who sang the Song of the Sea as the Israelites crossed the split Sea of Reeds – Az Yashir Moshe, and Moses sang, the Torah says – the text also says that it was Miriam, who sang with timbrel in hand, that led the Israelites onward in celebrating throughout the wilderness after they crossed the split sea.

Shirat Devorah, Deborah’s Song, makes up most of the Haftarah reading, taken from chapters four and five of the book of Judges. In this song, Deborah declares that we rise up! Song is our declaration to Rise up!

Uri Uri Dabri Shir. Rise Up. Rise Up. And Sing a Song.

There is an inherit connection between song and protest, between songs and marching. This is true for the songs that Moses, Miriam, and Deborah sang. This is equally true for the songs that we sing, for the protests that we participate in, for the marches that we march in. Last weekend, so many in our community participated in the second annual Women’s March, locally in Morristown and Westfield, in Trenton and Manhattan, in Washington DC, and all across the nation. And they marched – we marched – and we prayed, and we sang.

The song I immediately think of as a song of the resistance, a song of protest, is “We Shall Overcome.” This song was an early twentieth century gospel hymn. It was a song of faith. But in 1945 it was sung for the first time by tobacco workers on strike in Charleston as a song of protest. In the 1960s, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger made it an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

We Shall Overcome, We Shall Overcome, We Shall Overcome, someday…

A song of protest that remains a song of prayer.

HistoryHasItsEyesOnYouAnd we sang. And we sing. For Miriam and Deborah led us through song, and song got us through the darkest of moments. And song continues to do so. Song inspires us for what we will be, for what we can be, for the future that we will create. I encouraged members of our community to share pictures and experiences of those women’s marches with me that inspired them. And those pictures inspired me. Specifically, pictures of the youngest members of our congregation holding signs, including those that read: “History has its eyes on you,” “Girl Power,” “Fight like a girl,” “The Future is Female,” and “Girls will save the world.”

We have a long way to go, but what was inspiring about these marches were not the speakers standing at podiums, or those holding the banner who led the way. What was inspiring about these marches, were these children, the future leaders – and in many ways current leaders – of our community. Like the songs of Deborah and Miriam, we need song to move us and inspire us. A powerful song is not just a catchy pop-tune about a crush or a broken heart. A song of protest is a song whose message is as powerful as Torah, whose message is the essence of Torah. These songs remind us to march in the rain and in the cold, when our legs are tired and when we approach the banks of the sea without a clear path in front of us. We need these songs of protest, these songs of resistance, to teach us to rise up and act.

The beauty of the Haftarah is that the song serves as a backdrop; it is the inspiration that leads to action. The narrative of the Haftarah speaks of Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite King Yavin’s army. Deborah declares that she will deliver Sisera and the army into the hands of Barak and his soldiers. But when Sisera flees on foot to Yael’s tent, she greets him, invites him in, seduces him, gives him a strong glass of milk, and waits for him to go to sleep. Although she promised to stand guard, she takes a tent pin and a mallet and drives the pin through his temple, killing him.

Of course I’m not advocating such action. But I think it’s important to remember that is wasn’t Deborah’s song that defeated Sisera. It was Yael. Song leads to action. Song leads to purpose. Song inspires us to rise up. It’s not the leaders, the preachers, the theomusicologists, or the activists whom we know by their first names, that will ultimately make change in our society. It’s not those marching in front leading the way. It’s all of us, in the crowd, marching arm in arm, hand in hand, declaring in acts of civil disobedience that we shall not be moved, that will ultimately bring about the change that we seek.

In the middle of Deborah’s song, she declares:

 Tidrechi Nafshi Oz, March on, my soul, with courage and strength!

She sings so that we have the courage and strength to keep going, to know that our values are right, to keep going in spite of daily headlines that make us want to cry and scream, to keep going when it seems like we are marching against headwinds, to keep marching until we have crossed the split sea and can finally, like Miriam, take timbrel in hand, and have our songs of resistance become songs of freedom. Until then, we continue to sing. And we continue to march. We continue to act. May the words of our lips and the songs of our hearts inspire us to do so.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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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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