Tag Archives: Fear

Living Without Fear

Acharei Mot. After death. That’s how last Shabbat’s Torah portion begins, barely referencing the tragic loss of Aaron’s two sons that previously occurred. The text doesn’t focus on mourning. It doesn’t focus on grief. It just gets back to business. After the death of Aaron’s two sons, the Torah explains that God speaks to Moses and continues to instruct him on the laws of offerings and how Aaron must preside over these offerings.

I am left wondering why the Torah doesn’t give us, or Aaron the High Priest, time to grieve. When this loss occurred in Leviticus chapter 10,  the Torah simply states that Aaron was silent. I can’t get over these words though: Acharei mot, after death, especially after the deadly mass shooting at the Chabad of Poway, California a little over a week ago on the final day of Passover, six months to the day since the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Because we cannot simply move on. We cannot do what the Torah is telling us and just act like all is normal. We cannot accept this as the new normal. There is nothing normal about shootings at houses of worship. There is nothing normal about accepting mass shootings as a part of society. There is nothing normal about anti-semitism rearing its head and causing harm in the most violent attacks on Jews in our country’s history. But somehow, for whatever reason, we do. Only here. Nowhere else in the world. And we wait until the 24-hour news cycle has moved on to the next topic, and like the Torah even does, Acharei Mot, after death, we move on.

The Sifra, the halakhic midrashic word on the book of Leviticus, explains that these laws regarding entering the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, at inopportune times were commanded directly after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu so that one can understand the deadly consequences of one’s actions. The problem with this midrashic interpretation is that it is telling us to live our lives in fear. Midrash is suggesting that we should fear death and act accordingly. I refuse to do so.

Rabbi Yisrael Goldstein, the rabbi of Chabad of Poway, refused to be immediately treated for his wounds, after the shooter shot off his two index fingers, as he held his hands up to try to protect himself and his community, from the gunfire raining down on his community at the hands of a domestic terrorist with an AR-15. Instead, he used whatever he could find to stop the bleeding, including a tallit, a prayer shawl, and gathered the congregation outside their sacred space that had become a crime scene.

He pulled a chair and in front of the building, stood on the chair and gave the sermon he was going to give and started saying over and over again, Am Yisrael Chai. “Am Yisrael Chai,” he said. “We are a Jewish people that will stand tall. And we will not let anyone or anything take us down.” He was essentially teaching the opposite of what this week’s parasha suggests, we do not live our lives based on fear. We do not fear for our own lives because of those whose lives were lost. Instead, we say what Rabbi Goldstein said, Am Yisrael Chai. We are proud of who we are and will never hide who we are or what we believe.

At the Passover seder where we celebrated being freed from slavery through a festive meal and ritual retelling, we still said “Hashata L’Avday, L’shana Haba’ah b’nai chorin, We are still slaves. Next year, may we be fully free.” At the meal when we celebrated freedom, we acknowledged that we are not yet fully free. And in 2019, in America, in a country and at a time when Jews have experienced more religious freedom than at any other time in Jewish history of 2000 years living in the diaspora, we are still not free from anti-semitism. And society is not free from hatred. We say these words because we recognize that we cannot truly be free until we are all free. This tragic shooting in Poway on the last day of our holiday that celebrates freedom was just a reminder of that. We will not simply move on Acharei Mot, after death. We will not simply continue like this is the new normal.

During these days between Passover and Shavuot, we count the Omer. These days of counting the omer representing our people’s spiritual wandering, as we wandered throughout the wilderness, from the exodus from Egypt until Revelation at Sinai, lost. After another deadly anti-semitic incident, we feel lost. We are left wandering in a tearful daze. But we will not simply move on, Acharei Mot, like this is the new normal. We will proudly declare, as Rabbi Goldstein did, Am Yisrael Chai, and live our lives as Jews with pride, fighting to ensure our freedom, and everyone’s freedom from hatred and bigotry.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Rosh Hashanah Sermons

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

I look forward to your comments and feedback.

Rosh Hashanah Day One 5778: Accepting Our Fate

Rosh Hashanah Day Two 5778: When Awe Becomes Fear 

Wishing you a happy and healthy new year!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Davening During Jumu’ah

This past Friday, Congregation Beth El joined with our friends and neighbors at the NIA Masjid & Community Center for their weekly Jumu’ah prayer service. Last spring, my friend Ashraf Latif, Ameer of the NIA Masjid, spent Erev Shavuot, during our Tikkun Leil Shavuot learning session, teaching about the Qur’an. After ending his daily Ramadan fast with an iftar, he joined us so that we could compare and contrast the concepts of revelation in Jewish and Muslim scripture. Over the past few years, we have developed a friendship and a commitment to learning from each other about the other’s faith. We also have a shared commitment to standing up for the other. In the winter of 2015, when presidential candidates first mentioned the possibility of a discriminatory Muslim Ban in this country, he was the first person I reached out to – to let him know that his community is not alone and their Jewish brothers and sisters stand with them. This past Hanukkah, when the local South Orange menorah was vandalized, his call was the first I received; he and his community offered to help however possible. Weeks ago, we found each other among the hundreds who had gathered late into the night at Newark International Airport, protesting the President’s executive orders that had banned immigrants for seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. At that moment we truly understood the fierce urgency of now and we reaffirmed our commitment to be there for each other. The first step was our synagogue joining the NIA Masjid & Community Center last week during their Jumu’ah prayers. Our goal was to stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters during this time of uncertainty and fear in our country. We intended for the afternoon to be a day of standing with them, but we were blown away by how simultaneously, they stood with us.  

We were welcomed by their entire community. While we initially stood in the back of their prayer space, as to not disturb the ritual and intention of the service, after being publicly welcomed, so many parishioners came up to us to welcome us and thank us for being present. We were comforted by the words of Imam Daud’s weekly sermon, words that focused on standing up for justice, words that mirrored the teachings of our Torah, words that were so similar to what we often learned and taught.

At that moment, I took the opportunity to not just observe or be present, but to pray as well. I whispered words of prayer privately to myself, the text and liturgy of our faith, and concluded with the hope that Oseh Shalom Bimromav, Hu Yaaseh Shalom Aleinu v’al Kol Yisrael v’al Kol Yoshvei Tevel. May the Divine One who makes peace in high places, bring about peace for us and all of the Jewish people, and all who dwell on earth. My prayers may have been in Hebrew and may have come from our liturgical afternoon Mincha service. But there was no doubt that I felt as if I was praying with all those present. My kavanah, my intention, was uplifted by being in a holy space and by being among those present.

After the Jumu’ah service, we were invited to join members of the community for lunch and to get to know each other better. The community members went out of their way to make sure there was kosher food, so that we would feel comfortable eating, labeling a variety of foods as under kosher supervision and as “dairy” and “pareve”. As we took turns introducing ourselves, we came to understand and appreciate our shared beliefs, even if we practice different faiths, and our shared commitment to know the other and care for the other. Furthermore, we acknowledged the communal fear that was felt, but promised each other that we wouldn’t let that fear define us or determine our lot in life. 

I was honored to offer words of Torah and teachings from the Jewish faith to those present at the masjid. Referencing Parashat Yitro, the Torah portion read the following day, I noted that Jethro brought Moses’ sons and wife to him, but Moses went out and greeted Jethro before he greeted his own immediate family. He bowed low and kissed him and invited him into his tent. He embraced his fellow cleric because he understood the importance of their relationship as two religious leaders, as two people of faith. We understand the importance of religious communities coming together. Because to embrace the other, and have the other as a friend, means we see the other in the same way that we see ourselves. And to know the other, is to truly know ourselves. How beautiful to learn from our brothers and sisters of other faiths, and grow in our own faiths as a result. Most importantly, we understand our responsibility to stand up for ourselves and stand up for others, made in God’s image. Doing so ensures that we continue to walk in God’s ways and honor God in the process.

Attending a single service was only a small sign of solidarity. However, it also represented our deeper promise and commitment to stand with our neighbors and support them. As Jews, we know all too well what happens when others are silent in the face of bigotry and discrimination. We refuse to be silent and promise to stand united together.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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