Tag Archives: Children

Kol Nidre 5780: Children are Our Rainbow

Growing up, my family had an odd obsession: we would collect Noah’s arks. Anything that was Noah’s Ark related found in catalogues or at antique sales would end up in our home. To this day, the countertops of my parents’ kitchen covered with rainbow arches above miniature models of wooden boats, surrounded by parading animals, lined up two-by-two. I loved the story so much, I named my son after the biblical character. For my family, the story of Noah and his ark, was one about building a future, and a promise from God, a rainbow in the sky that we still see after every thunderstorm turns to sunshine, and a dove, complete with olive branch in beak, representing the possibility of peace.

This biblical narrative though is a troublesome one. Noah is called an Ish Tzadik Tamim haya b’dorotav, a righteous and simple person for his generation, the only person who God deems worth saving among a wicked generation. And so, he builds a lifesaving ark for himself and his family, and all animals that God created to ensure repopulation of the earth. But when God announces the imminent destruction of all humanity, Noah doesn’t flinch. He has a lifeboat – literally. He is safe. Throughout Torah, Abraham goes toe-to-toe with God in an attempt to save the innocent of Sodom and Gamora, cities where he did not reside. Moses stands up to God to defend the same Israelites that he spends most of his tenure as leader being critical of. But for Noah, he is only concerned with his own family and never thinks about the impact of his ambivalence or the world that he is left to live in after it was destroyed.

Approximately two million students from over 250 countries participated in a global climate school strike on Friday, September 20, ahead of the UN Climate Action Summit that took place days later. Coordinated by sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden, the strike was meant to gain attention to the issue, but also to make sure that young people on this planet, the ones whom we are leaving the earth to in this state, have a seat at the table and are part of the conversation. And the reality that we are leaving them is a scary one: hotter, drier weather in the Middle East has dried up the Tigris-Euphrates river basin; about 40% of the 10 million people who live in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta live below sea level, forcing the country’s President to announce that they will actually be moving the capital to higher ground; Miami and other coastal towns may not exist decades from now; droughts in California have caused water shortages and wildfires.

On this day where we admit our transgressions, my teacher and dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School, Rabbi Daniel Nevins writes: We were created amidst a clean and pure world, but now it is headed for destruction in our hands. Not on our own merits do we beseech You, Lord our God, for we have sinned, we have wasted, we have destroyed:  For the sin of filling the sea and land with filth and garbage;  For the sin of destroying forever species which in Your great mercy were saved from the flood;  And for the sin of laying bare the forests and habitats from which all creatures receive life.” Forgive us, Pardon us, Grant us Atonement.

I have a confession to make: I am not a very green person. Far from it actually. I use paper plates a lot because I hate doing the dishes. I often forget to separate out the recycling. When it was time to lease a new car, I went with the gas guzzling SUV instead of hybrid or electric models, because I was more interested in a third row with lots of leg room, not my carbon footprint. It’s not that I don’t care about protecting the planet. It’s more that I am unsure me doing anything can truly make a difference. Everything I’ve read suggests that we have passed the point of no return. After the forty-day-and-forty-night flood, there will be no rainbow in the sky.

Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University explains that a switch from plastic straws to paper straws alone won’t save the planet. He writes that, “focusing on individual choices around air travel and beef consumption  heightens the risk of losing sight of the gorilla in the room: civilization’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy and transport overall.”

On Yom Kippur, we pour our hearts out to God, not just admitting our mistakes, but we are meant to experience a spiritual death of sorts. And we make confessions as a community. Ashamnu. Bagadnu. Al Chet Shechatanu Lefanecha. Each statement is in the plural. We have sinned. We have transgressed. We have let this happen. We, together, have caused our communal death; we have brought this upon ourselves.

After all, when God gives responsibility of the utopian Eden to Adam and Eve, first God blesses them, and then says to them: be fruitful and multiply and fill the land. Then, v’chiv’shu’ha, and subdue it, Urdu bigdat Hayam, uv’of hashamayim, u’v’chol chaya haromeset al ha’aretz, and have dominion over the fish, and birds, and all mammals that roam the earth. Sforno, the Italian Rabbi and Biblical commentary of the 16th century explains that v’chiv’shu’ha is not a directive to conquer earth with muscular power, but to subdue it by means of humanity’s superior intellect. He understands Torah to mean that we must use our intelligence to protect earth. Our own intelligence, and courage, is what will save us.

Greta Thunberg first gained notoriety in August 2018 when she would stand outside the Swedish Parliament, then alone, holding up a sign that said “School Strike for Climate,” but through social media, her movement grew, launching a Fridays for the Future campaign, as well as this global school strike that some of our own children participated in just a couple of weeks ago. At her speech to the United Nations, she chastised world leaders:

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to me for hope? How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

But what gave Greta Thunberg hope that we can change was convincing her family to become vegan, convincing them to no longer travel by airplane. She realized that she could make a difference. She could change. She could save the world. We all can.

Al Gore, who has arguably become more influential and famous as an environmental hero than he ever was as Vice President, writes that he still has hope for the future. He says his hope “stems largely from the recent, unprecedented groundswell of youth activism that has raised public consciousness to new levels and is pushing political leaders to develop bold and ambitious ideas to confront this challenge. Harking back to the great social movements in history — youth activists are taking the lead.”

Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, of blessed memory, tells a story of a young child who cries out to God and declares that the world is such a mess. The child challenges God: Why don’t you send someone to change the world? God responds, I did send someone. I sent you. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubuvitcher Rebbe, taught: “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to complete. But if you only see what is wrong and what is ugly in the world, then it is you yourself that needs to repair.” It is our job now to repair the world. God sent us.

The theology of Yom and the concept of ‘who shall live and who shall die,’ is hardly believable for us. That is partially because we live in a world where we expect something and get it right away. That is because we fully expect to go to sleep tonight and wake up again in the morning. We care about the here and now, and we fully expect to be in the here and now. We don’t know about the future, but we don’t seem to be worried because that won’t affect us.

We learn in Taanit 23a of the Babylonian Talmud about a man walking along the road who comes across Honi the Circle Maker planting a Carob Tree. He looks at Honi and asks him: “how long will it take for the tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” Honi replies. “Seventy years?!?” The man cannot believe it. “You will not be alive in seventy years. Why would you plant a tree whose fruit you never get to eat,” the man scoffs. Honi quietly and confidently responded, “when I came into this world, there were carob trees ripe for the picking. Just as my parents planted for me, I will plant for my children.”

It is easy for us to not care about the future of the planet because we know it won’t affect us. We don’t have to worry about buying real estate on some space colony on Mars. We don’t have to worry about continents being submerged by water or animals becoming extinct. Not in our lifetime. But if that is how we view the future, then we are understanding the true message of Yom Kippur incorrectly. It’s not about the next day or the next year. It’s not about making it to the end of Neilah. It’s not about 5780. It is about what we want our legacies to be. What impact do we want to have in this world? Are we only concerned with us being written and sealed in the Book of Life for the year to come? Or do we want to make sure there is a Book of Life to be written into?

In our liturgy this evening, in our machzorim, we do not only that we have transgressed. We also ask God v’tein b’libeinu la’azov derech resha, to inspire our hearts to abandon this terrible path. Saying sorry isn’t enough. We need to be inspired to change. We need to be willing to change. We need to understand that what we as individuals strive to change may not be enough. But we ask God to inspire in our hearts to make a collective and communal change.  We admit our mistakes collectively. If we are going to save our planet, we must do so collectively as well.

Greta Thunberg concluded her UN speech with this promise: “We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.” Change is coming. And change must be coming here.

We have sinned. We have transgressed. I acknowledge that we have talked the talk on the bimah but not always walked the walk. We waste. We use paper and plastic. We leave lights on and don’t use energy efficient bulbs. We aren’t relying on renewable energy. That is about to change. In the year 5780, our newly constituted Beth El Green Team, will be working to make our sacred space and holy community one that understands and appreciates the importance the holy ground and sacred space of this planet, that when we make a promise of Tikkun Olam, to repair the world, we literally understand our need to save HaOlam, planet Earth.

RainbowInTheSkyThe power of the rainbow at the conclusion of Noah’s Flood was not just the promise and covenant that it represented. The rainbow represents the opportunity and ability to rebuild. It was a reminder that no matter what pain and destruction, metaphorical or literal, that we have caused and that we experienced. We can rebuild this world anew. No matter what the last year was, this year will be better, as long as we put in the work to make it so. Our past doesn’t need to dictate our future. The rainbow is our future. We do not see where it ends. If we put in the work, our potential to save this world is limitless. And our children will lead us. The prophet Isaiah promised (54:13) that children shall be disciples of God and how great will the peace of your children be, v’rav shalom baniyich. Midrash suggests that rather than reading this verse as baniyich, your children, we should read it as boniyech, your builders. Our children will follow God’s path, even if we don’t, and will build a world of Shalom. But Shalom here is not peace. Shalom comes from shalem, meaning whole. The Prophet Isaiah is revealing to us is that it is our children who will fix our past mistakes and transgressions. They will lead us. They are our rainbow. They are our dove with an olive branch. May we plant for them so that there is still a world left for them to repair. May we save the world for them. May they save the world for us. And may our entire planet be inscribed in the Book of Life.  Amen.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Less is More

The following sermon “Less is More” was delivered on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5779 at Congregation Beth El:

My daughter threw up two weeks ago. I know. That’s not really the best way to begin a sermon or to reel you in. But, my daughter threw up two weeks ago. And my wife and I hesitated. Not because we aren’t used to vomit. With three kids, we have seen our share. But it was our seven-year-old’s vomiting last January that led to six months – a winter and spring – full of hospital stays and infusions. It seems that her end of summer virus was just a bump in the road. But as I reflect on this past year, I can’t help but hold my breath with every deep chested cough, slight limp, low grade fever, or sense of exhaustion.

If this sermon sounds somewhat familiar, it’s not déjà vu, although it sort of felt that way to me. Last year, I stood on the bima on Rosh Hashanah, while four-year-old Noah was in the hospital. Days later, he was diagnosed with HSP, an auto-immune condition that caused an inflammation of his blood vessels, and as a result, in his case, inflamed joints and an inflamed abdomen.

By November, thank God, he was off medication and back to his crazy four-year-old self, training for American Ninja Warrior on our living room furniture.

I remember when Cayla would complain that her legs hurt. “They’re growing pains,” I’d say. “Stop being lazy,” I thought. “You have to walk. You’re seven. And I need to carry your brother.” The complaints would continue, as would the extended rests on the couch. “Let her rest,” I thought. “Let her watch tv. That will occupy her while I tend to her brother.”

It would be months before she noticed purple splotches on her legs. We were convinced it was bug bites and we even sent her to school the next day. By midday, I picked her up from school and carried her, because her joints were too swollen to walk. She too was diagnosed with the same auto-immune condition, HSP, that Noah was. Hers was a much more severe case, that caused inflammation of her kidneys, eventually leading to a Spring of chemotherapy infusions to reduce the inflammation. And now, for the most part, she is back to herself. She is still on a lot of medication, and still immunosuppressed, because of that medication. But she is back to doing cartwheels in the backyard, or making videos on my phone, pretending to be a YouTube star. But every time she gets sick, like that virus two weeks ago, we hold our breath.

With every hospital stay, blood test, infusion, or follow up doctor’s appointment, I couldn’t help but to have it in the back of my mind. Did I ignore her? With each stomachache, or complaint or leg pain, or exhaustion, I questioned if I ignored her symptoms? Was I too focused on one sick child, that I ignored the other?

The funny thing is, in February, during one of Cayla’s lengthier hospital stays, Noah complained that we were spending all our time in the hospital with his sister, completely ignoring him. Again, focusing on one child’s needs and ignoring the other. And when we explained that we wouldn’t leave his sister’s bedside, just as we didn’t leave his bedside when he was in the hospital only months prior, he looked at us and responded in perfect four-year-old fashion: “when was I ever in the hospital?!”

I was so focused on the needs of one child, that I completely ignored the needs of another. And when Cayla was sick, I was so focused on her, that I completely ignored the needs of Noah. And poor Hannah, all of 18 months. I’m just glad that she doesn’t talk yet. She can’t complain that I’ve been ignoring her this whole time. Maybe that is reality. In fact, a friend joked when we had our third child, that we are doing it right as long as one of the three is crying or mad at us at all times.

I was hard on myself. How could I not give of myself to all my children. How could I ignore one child for the sake of another? Didn’t I have enough love for them all? But of course, the answer was no – not in those moments. I couldn’t give of myself to all of them. And maybe that is true for all of us. We cannot give all of ourselves to everyone, all the time. We do not have enough love to give. We don’t have enough of ourselves to give. And that is okay. There is no secret to how to do this. We just get up each day anew and try to live life.

Struggling with this realization, my mind turned to Torah. In Parashat Toldot, when we learn of the sibling rivalry of Jacob and Esau, rabbinic tradition paints Jacob as the righteous one and Esau as the villain. However, the text tells us:

Vaye’ehav Yitzhak et Esav ki Tzayid b’fiv, v’Rivka ohevet et Yaakov. Isaac loved Esau because he was a hunter, he had a taste for game, but Rebekah loved Jacob more. (Gen. 25:28)

In reality, Jacob and Esau were not hero and villain, or vice-versa. They were simply children, yearning for their parents love. And neither Isaac nor Rebekah were able to give of their love to both of their children. The infamous narrative ends with Rebekah devising a plot to deceive her husband. On his death bed, with eyes too dim to see, Isaac sends Esau out to hunt for a meal. Rebekah in turn, dressed Jacob up in Esau’s clothes, and Isaac blesses Jacob as he approaches in disguise. When Esau returns with a prepared dish of hunted game, his father is confused. Esau and Isaac realize that Jacob had masked his identity to receive a blessing. But despite rabbinic attempts to paint Esau as a violent man seeking revenge, his first instinct isn’t to hunt down his twin. Instead, he sits and cries.

Vayitz’ak tzeaka gedolah u’mara at meod vayomer l’aviv baracheni gam ani avi. Esau bursted into wailing and bitter sobbing and said to his father, ‘bless me too’. (Gen. 27:34)

But Isaac explained that Jacob took his blessing.

Halo atzalta li beracha. Don’t you have a blessing for me too?,” he asked. (Gen. 27:36)

Habracha achat hee lecha avi, baracheini gam ani avi. Don’t you have one more blessing, dad? Bless me too, father. (Gen. 27:38)

This heartbreaking biblical tale is not about deception or the art of the con. It is an acknowledgement that we can’t give all of ourselves to everyone. We do not have enough of ourselves to give. We are finite. And that is okay. I am admitting that I too cannot give all of myself to everyone at all times.

And I am asking for forgiveness, from all of you, from friends, from my wife, and from my children, when one need, or one person, takes up all of myself and I neglect other things as a result.

And this isn’t only true for the individuals whom we love and want to be there for, but can’t always make the time for. This is also true for the causes that we care about, the issues that define us, the values that are at our core. It this era of activism, we can’t make every rally, attend every march, or show up to every protest. But that doesn’t mean that we do not care. It doesn’t mean that our hearts are not present. It just means that we cannot give of ourselves to everyone and everything all the time. And that is okay. We are enough.

Each and every year we try to focus on being better. But what does that mean? We tend to think being better is about doing more or being more. We tend to think that being better is about make more time for family, for friends, for community, for those in need.

But in doing so, we end up judging ourselves and our actions based on others. We need to do more because we see how much someone else is doing. We need to be more present because we see every other family’s happily together all the time on our Instagram feeds. But we don’t strive to be better. We just strive to be the best version of ourselves.

The Hasidic master Reb Zusya once came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him, what’s the matter? He replied, “I learned the question that I will be asked by God’s ministering angels when I leave this world.” “But you are a scholar,” they answered. “And so pious,” they said. “What possible question could you be asked that would have you in tears.” Zusya replied, “I will not be asked ‘why weren’t you more like Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ I will not be asked ‘why weren’t you more like Joshua leading your people into the promised land.’ They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you more like Zusya?’”

We may be flawed individuals. But that is what makes us beautiful. We are beautiful in our imperfections. So stop trying to be perfect. When we try to be perfect, we try to be somehow else. In the new year, let’s try being more like ourselves, imperfect and finite, with not enough of ourselves to go around, and not enough time to do all that we want to do. Flawed. And beautiful. And holy.

We read in the Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16b, of the three books that God supposedly opens on Rosh Hashanah. The book of life for those who are perfectly righteous, the book of death for those who are fully wicked, and the beinonim, the book for those who hang in the balance. It is said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan that we all are written in that third book, for we all are imperfect. We are not expected to be better. We are just expected to be the best version of ourselves. And sometimes, the best version of ourselves means that we need to focus more time or energy on work, or a meeting, or on a specific child, or on a relationship.

And sometimes that means that at that moment, we don’t have time, energy, or emotion to give to others. The best version of ourselves means that we cannot balance everything. Even if it looks like we are, we are not. Even if we are able to juggle all the balls in the air for a moment, we eventually drop them. Because a life in balance is impossible.

Moments ago, we read from the Torah about the biblical narrative of Abraham’s challenging relationship with his family. It’s not great. And it gets worse. Spoiler alert: tomorrow, we read about him trying to kill his son Isaac. In today’s reading we read of Abraham being pressured to kick his firstborn son Ishmael, and Ishmael’s mother Hagar out of his home, because of his wife, Sarah’s, jealousy. He doesn’t love Ishmael any less than he loves Isaac. Our rabbis even suggest that Abraham deeply loves Hagar. Some commentators conclude that Ketura, whom he marries after Sarah passes away is even Hagar whom he abandons in the wilderness in this morning’s Torah reading.

This is not a pleasant story. It’s a story of a flawed person. The patriarch of our people. The one who inspired us to put our faith in Hakadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One, Blessed Be God, who we turn towards on this holiest of days. And what do we read? We read of an individual who at times failed his family, who made his children cry, who couldn’t find a way to give all of himself to everyone, who at times chooses one family member over another. We read of a flawed individual. But we do not celebrate the individual’s actions or inactions. We celebrate the biblical character’s imperfections, and celebrate our own imperfections as a result. We celebrate that we are far from perfect, that we can’t do it all or have it all.

In Tractate Kiddushin 39b, the Talmud teaches that one who performs a single precept is well rewarded. But for one does not perform a precept, good does not come to that person. We understand how difficult it is to balance the scales. Even a balanced scale slightly shakes back and forth. Rabbi Shemayah explains that even if there is equal balance, the scales are still tipped. This means that balance is impossible, that perfection is impossible.

This summer’s story of Serena Williams is a remarkable one. She had already etched her image into Tennis’ Mount Rushmore, but a year ago, following the birth of her daughter Olympia, she had a near death experience. The emergency c-section delivery of her baby caused a pulmonary embolism, leading to five surgeries and months of bed rest. The fact that she made it to the finals in Wimbledon this summer on sheer grit was the comeback story we were all waiting for. The fact that she made it to the finals of the US Open only days ago, is an exclamation point on that comeback story. But in between, she was ousted in the opening round of a tune up tournament in San Jose to someone no one has ever heard of. And she spoke about how training to get back on the court meant spending less time with her daughter.

Her trainer concluded that to get physically fit again for competition meant that she had to stop breastfeeding. Her coach told her she needed to put tennis before family to return to form.

On the cover of Time Magazine last month, she acknowledged that in her struggle, failing to balance being a parent and being an elite athlete. She said, “there is nothing about me that is perfect. But I am perfectly Serena.” And she is right. We are imperfect. That is who we are, so that is whom we should strive to be.

So in the new year, may we stop trying to balance everything. May we stop trying to fit more unto our overflowing plates. May we stop committing to do more or to be more. May we do less. Yes, in the new year, let us do less. We can become the best version of ourselves by doing less. Because when we only have so much of ourselves to give, less is more.

I’ve learned to forgive myself, to not feel guilty for the blessings I give to one person instead of another, for the time I spend focused on one activity and neglect other responsibilities, for the cause that I dedicate myself to and the others that I care about, but don’t make time for. So in the new year, do not try to be better. Do not try to take on more.

In the new year, become a better version of yourself by doing less, by refocusing on the areas that we do not give enough attention to, by appreciating the blessings that we give and receive to all, by making time for all of our loved ones, by creating a true work-life balance, by reconnecting with the world and at times disconnecting with the world.

I try to focus more time on each of my children now. And maybe that means that I spend less time with my wife, or at work, or with each of you. As the imbalanced scale of life constantly shakes back and forth, may we embrace the shakiness of life, understanding that we cannot be everything for everyone all the time. Let us just be. Because that is enough.

In the end, Esau finally got his blessing. It may not have been the blessing he wanted, or the blessing that Isaac intended to give, but the dying parent still found a way to bless his beloved child. May that be a lesson to all of us. What we are able to offer is enough. The love that we can give is enough. Who we are is enough. Instead of trying to be better, just be. Shana Tova.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized