Tag Archives: Abraham

Finding the Balance

My children came home from school so excited to tell me everything they learned about Thanksgiving. My daughter who is in kindergarten had to decorate a feather. Every student in her class that would then added to her “class turkey.” My son who is still in preschool was amazed that he could trace his hand and it would look like the shape of a turkey. He was excited to “teach” me that Thanksgiving was about being thankful. In preparation for the holiday, I asked him what he was thankful for and he responded with a list: my house, the playground, my family, and my toys. I am just happy that family made the cut, even if we are seen as less important than the playground in his eyes. The more my children listed all that they are thankful for, the more grateful they became for the blessings in their lives. However, I also realized what a selfish exercise this was.

Giving thanks is an important part of our daily ritual as Jews. We begin each morning with the Birkot HaShachar, the morning blessings, in which we thank God for the everyday miracles of our lives. Even the Amidah prayer, recited three times daily, consists of Hodaot, daily prayers of Thanksgiving. Yet, as my children listed what they were thankful for, I realized that they – like all of us – were only thinking of themselves. I am grateful for the roof over my head, the food on my table, my family and friends, the blessings that benefit me exclusively in my life. We should always be grateful for the blessings in our lives, but I realized that by teaching my children to me thankful, I was also teaching them to exclusively think of themselves. 

This is true for most of us. Our initial instinct is to think of ourselves before we think of others. We care about our own self-interests and ignore the need and concern that others may feel. For this reason, rabbinic commentators and Jewish scholars have historically been perplexed by Abraham, the bible’s first monotheist and the patriarch of the Jewish people. This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Vayera, which begins with Abraham, infirm and recovering from a medical procedure, leaving his tent in the wilderness to greet strangers and invite them into his home:

“…As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, ‘my lords, if it please you, do not go past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves…” (Gen. 18:2-5)

The Torah portion begins with Abraham going out of the way to welcome strangers into his home. Later, as he passes by Sodom and learns of God’s intentions to destroy the entire city because of those who do evil within the city limits, Abraham stands up to God. Arguing to spare the lives of an entire city, strangers who he has no relationship with, Abraham challenges God:

“Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?” (Gen. 18:23-24)

Abraham continues to negotiate with God, attempting to convince God to spare the lives of those who have done wrong because of those who are righteous in their midst. Early on in his relationship with the divine, Abraham is willing to stand up to God to fight for the rights of others, even if it doesn’t directly benefit himself.

And for this reason, we are baffled by the final act of the Torah portion. The biblical narrative tells us:

“Some time afterward. God put Abraham to the test. God said to him, ‘Abraham,’ and he answered, “Here I am.’ And God said, ‘Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.’” (Gen. 22:1-2)

God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son and he agrees. While the rabbinic commentator Rashi suggests that Abraham tried to negotiate with God again, the simple reading of the text suggests that Abraham didn’t flinch. He woke up the next day prepared to kill his son and almost did so, until an angel intervened at the last minute. How is it possible that the patriarch who went out of his way to welcome strangers into his home, who fought with God to spare the lives of strangers, didn’t stand up to save his own son? We are not taught to always walk in the ways of our biblical ancestors. Rather we are taught to learn from their actions. We naturally live lives in which our first inclination is to think of ourselves and no one else. Our understand of the id of our psyche leads us to conclude that this is our animal instinct. Abraham does the complete opposite. But this too is incorrect. By standing up for others but refusing to stand up to save his son, he also fails God’s test. 

Our initial instincts lead us to the most extreme position of only thinking about ourselves and Abraham lives a life on the opposite extreme where he only thinks about others. The lessons of the Torah guide our lives and teach us that we must find the proper balance. We must equally care about ourselves and others. Hillel’s famous teaching reminds us: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” but also, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” Hillel teaches these two lessons simultaneously. One cannot only think of oneself and not of others. But one cannot only care about others and neglect his or her own needs. There must be a balance.

Last Thursday, I attended the Anti-Defamation League’s “Never is Now” Summit on Anti-Semitism, Bigotry, and Hate. The ADL was founded over a hundred years ago to combat Anti-Semitism in this country. As the organization evolved, the ADL realized that we have a responsibility to stand up to all forms of bigotry. As its website says, the “ADL fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, defends democratic ideals and protects civil rights for all.” So, the daylong conference I attended had a session on the rise of Anti-Semitism and Violent Threats to Jewish Life in Europe and a session on Race, Identity, and Racial Justice. We listened to representatives from Twitter and journalists about the concerning use of social media by the Alt-Right to “troll” Jewish users and make online threats to Jewish journalists and we heard from Muslim leaders about the frightening rise of Islamophobia in this country. The promise of “Never Again” by the Jewish community is a promise to stand up to bigotry towards the Jewish community, but also to all forms of bigotry in which any minority is scapegoated. The leadership of the ADL and its CEO Jonathan Greenblatt remind us that our obligation is to protect ourselves and others. If we are not for ourselves, who will be? But if we are only for ourselves, what are we? 

Hillel concludes his famous teaching with the most important question: “If not now, when?” Now is the time because it is always the time to stand up for what is right. Now is the time to stand up to protect ourselves. Now is the time to stand up to protect others. Now is the time to find the balance, to learn from Abraham’s actions, and our own, to stand up for ourselves and others. This Thanksgiving, as we reflect on what we are thankful for, may we not just commit to protecting the blessings in our lives. May we ensure the blessings in the lives of others as well. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky 

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The Journey Continues…

This article was originally published on November 13th, 2016, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

Over the past several days, I have felt sadness, anger, and disbelief. I feel lucky to live in a town, and be part of a synagogue, with such shared values. In democracy there is always a winner or a loser. My concern was not eliminating that – that division exists in a two party system. But, we have much work to do to repair a country that is so divided and so broken.

What was hard for me, and continues to be hard for me, is the tone and rhetoric. That is why I stood up time and time again condemning such hate speech. And now a candidate who, yes, ran on change, jobs, and the economy — but also on misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and bigotry — won. A candidate won who seemed to bully all the other candidates during the primaries and general election: calling them names, yelling at them, interrupting them.

It was hardest to share this information with my children – they are still so young. My daughter was so excited to come into the voting booth with us – about the historic nature of this election. I was upset to share the results. We teach our children certain values, at home, in school, at synagogue and in our sacred spaces: about how to treat other people, those like you and those who are different than you, about loving your neighbor instead of hating the other, about respect. And it seems with the results of this election, I fear that electing a candidate whose campaign seemed to reflect the opposite of those values we teach our children condones hate.

I fear for so many – and I fear also as a Jew – what it means when a candidate who was endorsed by the KKK is elected President. There is real fear for many of us that the hateful rhetoric of this campaign will lead to hateful acts. This week, we also observed the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” a pogrom when Nazis torched synagogues and Jewish homes, businesses, and schools, killing over a hundred people. Kristallnacht was a turning point, when hate speech led to hateful acts.

I was also reminded this week of the profound words of George Washington, found in a 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, home of the country’s oldest Jewish house of worship. In it, he pledged that the “government of the United States…gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” I acknowledge my privilege as a white, straight, man and I promise to do my part, as an American, and as a human being, to ensure George Washington’s words ring true – that our government does not sanction bigotry or persecution.

So when I spoke to my children, I reminded them that this election does not change what we believe and the way we act. We must continue to be kind. We must continue to stand up for what is right, and stand up for others. A single election does not change the values we stand for. That is what our text and our tradition teach us. We read at the beginning of Genesis 12 that Abram goes on a journey to “a land that I will show you” – traditionally understood as not knowing where he is going to end up. But Abram’s journey was not a journey into the unknown. It was a journey in which they knew exactly where they were going, because the text tells us that Abram’s father, Terach, also set out on this exact journey. We read in Genesis 11:31:

Terach took his son Abram, his grandson Lot… and his daughter-in-law Sarai… and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there.

So we learn really that Abram was recommitted to continuing the journey his father was already on. Terach set out on his journey, but stopped and settled and never continued. Maybe he was tired; maybe he despaired; maybe he gave up; maybe he was content with simply getting this far.

The disappointment some feel following this election is not just because a candidate won and a candidate lost. It is a fear – fear that the progress this country has made, great progress forward toward justice and equal rights – progress that I believe our tradition celebrates, as well – will stop.

So for those disappointed, I say that the journey continues just as Abram continued Terach’s journey. We will continue on this journey determined to reach a destination of justice and equality. We will come together as a community, as a diverse people, and we will continue the American journey.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Journey in the Voting Booth

Last week, I added my name to a letter signed by clergy across faiths and religions in solidarity, urging Congress to pass the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014. The letter, prepared by the Jewish Social Justice organization Bend the Arc, urges Congress to pass this amendment and restore the mechanisms of the Voting Rights Act, mechanisms that they Supreme Court got rid of last year. Thus, the upcoming election day, Tuesday November 4th, will be the first election day in this country in over fifty years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.

Voter disenfranchisement troubles me. Scare tactics and stumbling blocks — including special ID cards — make in near impossible for some American citizens to fulfill their duty, obligation, and opportunity as Americans and vote. What is equally troubling, maybe even more troubling, is that so many of us who do not have such stumbling blocks in our path, choose to stay home on election day.

The 2008 election saw over 70% of eligible voters head to the voting booth. In 2010, the last “midterm” elections, only 42% of eligible voters actually voted. 58% of eligible voters did not cast a ballot. Many in the news media think that turnout on Tuesday will be even lower. Some of us may not vote because we think our vote is only one vote and a single vote does not matter. Others may stay home, fed up with the gridlock in Washington, annoyed by the lack of productivity of our representatives. However, as I wrote previously, we have a Jewish imperative to vote. We have a responsibility — as keepers of Torah, as those who strive to make the ethics and morals of our tradition reality for all of God’s creations, as those who see the Torah as a tree of life because it is a guide in our lives —  to vote.

voteforpeaceVoting is taking a leap of faith. Like Abram who began his journey in Parashat Lech Lecha, the Torah portion of Lech Lecha, which we read about this past Shabbat, we go on a journey, even if we do not know where exactly we will end up. God promised Abram in Genesis 12:1 that God would take him to a land yet unseen. He did not know where the journey would take him. He did not know what the final destination would be. But he still took the journey.

We vote for candidates, on the local, state, and national level, that we think best represent our ethics and values. We do not know what they will achieve once they are elected. But we still take to journey. To refuse to vote, to refrain from voting, to be apathetic towards the democratic process is the equivalent of Abram settling and remaining in Haran.

Voting is a sacred experience, a sacred journey. Even if we do not know where we will end up, may we be brave enough to take the journey. May we do our duty, may we fulfill our responsibility, and vote. Amichai Lau-Lavie of Lab/Shul compares the voting booth to the Holy of Holies, for it is truly a sacred space, an act in which become a little bit closer to the Divine. May we take the act seriously, and may we appreciate the holiness of this journey.

No matter what political party you affiliate with, no matter what candidate you support, don’t forget that election day is a holy day. Don’t forget to vote.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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