Tag Archives: God

Holiness is Defined By How We Treat Others

You should be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am Holy (Lev. 19:2).

The very beginning of Parashat Kedoshim, which we read last Shabbat, is a command to strive to be holy, to strive to be like God. While the word ‘holy’ is quite difficult to define, this command is followed by several other mitzvot that attempt to explain how we should be holy.

We are told how we should treat our family members, focusing on the holiness of the home.

We are told that we should not make idols or worship false gods, emphasizing that the root of holiness is our relationship with the Creator of all life.

And then, we are told:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God (Lev. 19:9-10).

In this case, holiness is defined by how we take care of the most vulnerable. Holiness is ensuring that we look out for others rather than only being concerned with ourselves. This is truly a challenging task since our natural instinct is to care for ourselves first. We make sure we are okay; we protect our children. Yet, the Torah is telling us that only looking out for yourself and ignoring the needs of another is the opposite of holiness. Rather than a sanctification of God, it is a desecration of God, because when you ignore the needs of others, you are ignoring those made in God’s image. In turn, you are ignoring God.

We also find holiness defined this same Torah portion with the command to love our neighbors:

Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18). 

The command to love is a challenging one. One cannot be commanded to feel something. And yet, we are commanded to love another, essentially to treat others the way we want to be treat. For if we truly loved another in the same way we loved ourselves, then we would take care of the most vulnerable. We wouldn’t reap from the corners of our fields — metaphorically speaking — and would ensuring that no one went to bed hungry, wondering where their next meal was going to come from.

So be holy. Not just because God is holy. Be holy for the sake of holiness. Be holy because all are created in God’s image and that make each of us holy. So we cannot ignore the needs of another. We cannot ignore the holiness of another. Rather, we build in our holiness by seeing the holiness in others.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Praying to the same God

When Moses crossed the split sea into the wilderness, he didn’t first reunite with his wife or sons. Jethro, Moses’ father in law, takes Tzipporah, Gershon, and Eliezer to see Moses. But the Torah says that Moses instead went to see Jethro. The first person he saw and met was Jethro. They greeted each other, bowed low, and kissed each other. They asked about each other’s welfare and went into the tent.

Why does Moses connect with Yitro, instead of with his wife and children? Abarbanel, the 15th century commentator, says it was unbecoming to greet your wife before you greet your father-in-law. Ibn Ezra, the 12th century commentator, said that it was not the custom of a respected individual to go out and greet his family. He instead waited for them to come to him. I would suggest though that the main reason that Moses greets Jethro first is not because Jethro is his father-in-law. He is not greeting family. He greets Jethro because of Jethro’s other title, High Priest of Midian.

After they connect, Moses recounts to his father in law everything that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians, And then the Torah tells us that Jethro rejoiced over all the kindness that the Lord had shown Israel when God delivered them form the Egyptians. And Jethro said: Baruch Adonai. Blessed be God.

Moses took the Israelites through the split sea and moments later they complained. They experienced God’s miracles and yet doubted God’s majesty. Yet, Jethro didn’t experience that at all, but simply hearing of God’s omnipotence still led him to praise God.

Moses was a man of faith, the leader of the Israelites, who spoke directly to God and served as a prophet. As the High Priest of Midian, Jethro was also a man of faith; he was a faith leader. And no matter their differences, their faiths connected them, for there was far more that united them than divided them.

For the past month, as part of our MAKOM Teen Post-B’nai Mitzvah educational program, some of our teenagers have been participating in a course called “The Tie that Binds: What Jews and Muslims have in Common.” We’ve had the privilege of learning with friends from the NIA Masjid and Community Center in Newark, the mosque that many in our congregation visited when we attended Friday after Jumu’ah services a couple of years ago as a sign of unity in the face of rising Islamophobia.

makomjewsmuslimsThis past week, teens from the NIA Masjid joined our MAKOM teens, many of whom were visiting a synagogue for the first time. They asked each other questions about their faiths and beliefs, and compared their favorite television shows (The Office and Brooklyn 99). Soon after though, they discussed the shared challenges, as Muslims and Jews, of being a religious minority in this country, especially given the rise in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in this country. But most of all they got to know each other. And realized that there was so much more that united them than divided them. They understood that they could hear the words of each other and say Allah Achbar, Baruch Adonai, Praised be God. No matter the name they used for God, or how they worshipped that God, they weren’t so different.

And I imagine a world in which we can all do so; we can all praise God together, no matter what name we call that God. For that is the greatest miracle. More so than experiencing a split sea, they learned to experience that the God of my fellow, is my God as well, that to know the other is to truly know myself. May we all continue to know each other, and come to appreciate that we are all made in God’s image.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Our Liberation is Bound Up Together

We read about the Kriat Yam Suf, the splitting of the sea, this past Shabbat, as we also celebrated the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And we did so, as many across the nation continued to march, organize, and protest. When we read of the splitting of the sea, the greatest of all miracles that our people experienced, and the marching, walking, singing, and dancing that took place as we crossed, I can’t help but connect these two images: the image of the marching across a split sea and that of marching for justice and equality.

splitting the seaThere are countless midrashim, rabbinic explanations, that detail the splitting of the sea. These midrashim focuses on the ripple effect – pun intended – that such public actions, and such miracles, can have. The Mechilta says that the roar of the split sea was so loud that it was heard in neighboring countries. Shemot Rabbah says that all waters split, not just those of the sea that the Israelites crossed. As those waters split, so too did the waters of the lakes and wells, and even water in people’s glasses and jars. The impact was felt by those who were not even present.

Midrash focuses further on the actions of the angels during this experience. These celestial beings, who are perfect in the Heavens, wanted to sing and celebrate as the Israelites crossed the split sea. But God stopped them for the Israelites were not yet free, were not yet safe. “How can I let you sing as they fear their lives?”, God challenged the angels. Essentially, God is asking, how can you be content, when others fear for their safety? God is even telling the angels, God’s messengers meant to guide us in God’s path, that they are not superior or holier than we are. We are bound up together. They cannot be content if others are not free.

Lilla Watson, the 1970’s Queensland Aboriginal Activist, reminds us:

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Your liberation is bound up with mine. And mine with yours. Our liberation is bound up in one another. And so Midrash Avkir even concludes that the angel Gabriel walked with the Israelites as they crossed the split sea, holding back the water on the right and on the left, and preventing the walls of water from collapsing on them. He could not remain in the Heavens on high, simply relaxing and being content with his life when others feared for theirs. He – an angel of God – marched arm-in-arm, side-by-side, with the Israelites and protected them in their most vulnerable state. He acknowledged that our liberations are bound up together.

So what is our mission, our obligation, our responsibility in 2019, as bigotry against all minorities is on the rise, as hate groups seem to have come out of the sewers and back into daylong? Our mission is to be united against the shared adversity that we face.  Our mission is to not sit and sing while others fear. Our mission is to be angels for each other, to stand united against police brutality, against mass incarceration and a criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates people of color, to stand against transphobic and homophobic policies pushed by the White House, to stand up to Islamophobic travel bans and xenophobic policing of immigrants, to unite against a rise in anti-Semitism, to break down walls that are trying to be built to divide us. Our mission is to understand that we are all in this together. And only then, when we all cross that split sea, leaving Mitzrayim, the narrowest places of society behind, can we truly sing and rejoice. Then, and only then, will we all finally be free.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Blessing to Lead by Example

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Naso, the Torah portion of Naso. Within that Torah reading, we find the well-known priestly benediction in Numbers 6:24-26:

Yevarechecha Adonai V’Yishmereicha, Yair Adonai Panav Elecha Vichuneka, Yisa Adonai Panav Elecha v’Yasem lecha Shalom.

May God bless you and protect you. May God illuminate God’s face to you and be gracious unto you. May God lift up God’s face to you and grant you peace.

priestly benediction handsThis blessing is a part of so many different rituals. These words are a part of the repetition of the Amidah. Parents use these words to bless their children on Friday night during Shabbat dinner. These words are often recited by parents at a brit milah or simchat bat. I bless couples with these words underneath a chuppah at a wedding and I recite these words when I offer a blessing to a bar or bat mitzvah. These words of blessing are integral to who we are as a people. Yet, this blessing is actually three separate blessings, three separate verse.

The first verse, a blessing for protection, is more than that. The protection we seek is not from the outside world, but rather from ourselves. We pray that God will protect us from the worst versions of ourselves. We pray that God protects us from our evil inclinations, from our mistakes, and from our bad decisions.

The imagery of the last two verses of this blessing though is quite revealing and explains the deeper meaning of the blessing. Most translations ignore the imagery and I believe as a result, misunderstand the blessing. For example, while the literal translation is “May God illuminate God’s face to you and be gracious unto you. May God lift up God’s face to you and grant you peace,” the Jewish Publication Society translates these verses as “The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you. The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace.” The translation ignores the imagery of God entirely. Yet, the idea of God revealing God’s face to us is a beautiful one.

We read in Deauteronomy 34:10 at the conclusion of the Torah, upon hearing of Moses’ death:

Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like MOses — whom God singled out, face to face.

Moses had a unique relationship with God. Moses’ saw God’s true face. Metaphorically speaking, we also strive to see God face to face. The blessing is a blessing in which we strive to have a relationship with God just like Moses did. Furthemore, this is a blessing in which we strive to lead just as Moses did. Moses led by example, even when he was not popular, even when he had doubters. Moses led even when he held the minority opinion. This blessing that we offer each other is ultimately a blessing about our actions. This blessing is a blessing about leadership.

May we have a relationship with God just like Moses and may God protect us from ourselves, from our own action and inaction, so that we can lead by example. Doing so will make this world a better place. Doing so will fulfill the last part of this blessing. For if we all lead by example, then we will truly bring peace to this world.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Finding God Where We Are

Last Shabbat, we concluded the book of Exodus. We did so by reading the double Torah portion of Vayahkel-Pekudei in which the building of the Mishkan, the traveling sanctuary in the wilderness, is completed. Upon its completion, God’s Divine Presence was felt in the Mishkan. We read in Exodus 40:33-34:

When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.

After building the Tabernacle, a man-made sanctuary, God’s presence entered the space. If God’s Presence entered the space, then where was God prior to the building of the Tabernacle? In fact, God had been missing in the text since the Golden Calf narrative. Only now does God’s Presence return and reappear.

Many commentators suggest that God had hid and distanced God’s self from the Israelites. God was angry and heartbroken that the people that He brought out of slavery and formed a covenant with abandoned Him so quickly by building an idol. The building of the Tabernacle was their opportunity to re-establish the covenant. It was a physical sign to show their commitment to this relationship with the Divine.

However, I don’t think God abandoned the Israelites. Rather, I think the Israelites stopped looking for God. Still wrestling with their idea of the Divine, and grappling with faith, the Israelites stopped looking for God’s Presence in this world and in the natural world around us. The chose to build a Golden Calf instead of look for God everywhere and in everything. The building of the Tabernacle help them to remove the blinders and see God’s Presence there, and in all places.

We all too often stop looking for God in our own lives. We are busy and preoccupied and become obsessed with our own idols, our own versions of the Golden Calf. In doing so, we ignore God’s Presence. We too need to remove the blinders. We too need to remember that God’s Presence is in this space, in all spaces. We too need to stop for a moment and find God in all of our sanctuaries. And when we find God, it will not be because God was missing. Rather, it will be because until now, we hadn’t searched for the Divine.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Conservative Movement’s Journey

My father was ordained as a Reform rabbi. I grew up as a young child going to the local Reform temple. I am a committed Conservative rabbi, but truthfully, I became a Conservative Jew by accident.

Growing up in Central New Jersey, my family and I would often drive twenty plus minutes to the Reform synagogue. I didn’t know any of the kids in Religious School so I begged my parents that if they were going to drag me to services Shabbat morning, the least they could do was bring me to the synagogue that was much closer, where all the other children in my neighborhood also belonged. This way, at least, I wouldn’t be getting into mischief by myself. From there, I got involved in USY, switched to a Solomon Schechter Day School, attended Camp Ramah, and eventually, the Jewish Theological Seminary. Yet, I became a Conservative Jew by accident because, as a child, I wanted to go to synagogue with my friends. I became a Conservative Jew first, because I was engaged.

I am a Conservative Jew. I believe in Conservative Judaism. As Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, of blessed memory, once said: “Conservative Judaism is where Tradition meets Change.” Yet, it seems that that crossroads where these two concepts meet is also at a crossroads.

The Pew Study on the American Jewish Community that came out last week, gives insight to the challenges facing the American Jewish community, but even more specifically, facing Conservative Judaism. According to the study, only 18% of American Jews identify with the Conservative movement. Additionally, over 30% of those raised in Conservative institutions have chosen to affiliate with another movement. Furthermore, the median age of Conservative Jews according to the study is 55 years old, the oldest of all Jewish denominations and movements in this country.

The movement – with United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism at its head – must reestablish itself if we are to be a movement that offers anything worthwhile a generation – even a decade – from now. I am proud of the thriving, ever evolving, and innovative institution that the Jacksonville Jewish Center is, but as the only Conservative synagogue on Florida’s first coast, it’s easy to see our vibrancy and ignore the struggles of the movement outside outside of Northeast Florida.

Part of the struggles have to do with the evolution of the movement juxtaposed with the ever changing U.S. Jewish community. Some worry that the Conservative Judaism of today is not the Conservative Judaism that they once knew. That is true, but that is because movements move. Chancellor Arnie Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary highlights this idea by explaining that the Judaism he practices is different from the Judaism that his parents practiced and the Judaism that his children practice. Movements move. So where will the Conservative Movement move to?

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Lech Lecha, which focused on Abraham and Sarah’s journey. The Torah portion begins:

Lech Lecha me’artzecha u’mimoladtecha u’mi’beit avicha el haaretz asher Ar’eh’ka

Go out, for yourself, on a new journey, from your land, from your birth place, from your father’s house, from what you know, from what you are used to, from what is most comfortable, from how you grew up.

We aren’t sure where we are going to go to. El Haaretz Asher Ar’eh’ka.  To a land that God will show us. But we will get there eventually. That place may look different from where we started. But it is where you are meant to be. It is where you will find God.

Like Abraham, the Conservative Movement is going on this journey, unsure of where the movement will end up, but knowing that we must take this journey.

USCJFriday October 11th, 2013 began the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference and Celebration, a celebration of USCJ’s 100 years. This centennial conference is the beginning of this journey, figuring out where the movement will end up. This centennial, which includes over 1200 participants, is being called the “Conversation of the Century.”

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism,  has described the centennial as “a big reset button for United Synagogue, and in turn the Conservative Movement.” How big? The conference is offering a wide variety of worship options including egalitarian and non-egalitarian, musical services, “retro” services, renewal services, Carlebach services, and “dynamic” services. Additionally, it will also host honest and essential conversations about the struggle to engage college students, continuing to embrace feminism, welcoming men back into our communities, engaging 20 and 30 somethings, the role of halakha in the future of the movement, the role of music in services, how to reach out to young families, how to engage those who have grown children or no children, and the relationship between Israel and our movement

While I’m unfortunately unable to attend this conference, I’d like to add my thoughts to the conversation. If we are to press the reset button, then these are the five areas in which we must emphasize in order to truly reset the Conservative Movement:

  1. Spirituality. We, as a movement, lack spirituality. Statistics show that while the affiliation rate among Jews in this country is down considerably, the rate of those who seek spiritual connection and meaning has greatly increased. As I said on Kol Nidre and will repeat again, we do plenty of davening, but not enough praying. If the synagogue is to thrive as a House of God and a House of Worship, then we as a movement must create multiple entry points to find God and wrestle with the Divine.
  2. Literacy. For most of the twentieth century, there was an assumption that education would take place at the synagogue school and reinforcement would take place in the home. Now, we need to make our institutions the home base for not just education, but for the experiences that reinforce the education. Furthermore, we need to remember that education does not end at Bar or Bat Mitzvah. In fact, for many of us, Jewish education didn’t start until adulthood. Talmud Torah is a lifelong process. In order to ensure the engagement of all affiliated with all our communities, we cannot only emphasize teaching our preschoolers. We must also emphasize learning with – and learning from – our adults.
  3. Stand for something. This is the struggle of being perceived as being “stuck in the middle.” We are the bridge, it seems, between those on the left of us in the Reform movement and those who practice Orthodox Judaism on the right. We, as a movement, for too long feared that if we were to take a stand, we would upset those on our left and those on our right. As a result, the movement rarely took such a stand. The truth is, those to the left may never appreciate the tension between tradition and modernity that we wrestle with and those on the right will never accept our evolving halakhic process as truly authentic. We are who we are, yet if we don’t stand for something, then we stand for nothing. We must take a stand as a movement for what we believe in, even if others disagree.
  4. Social Justice. This is something that the Reform Movement does exceptionally well. We can certainly learn much from them. As I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah, Social Justice is one of the pillars that define us as Jews and yet, our institutions and synagogues often focus on insular education and tefillah before we roll up our sleeves and take action. Social Justice and Social Action are the avenues in which the ethics and values, which are the core of who we are as Jews, are put into practice. According to a study prepared by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, “sixty-four percent of Jewish young adults report that ‘making the world a better place’ is an essential element of their Jewish identity, and fifty-six percent report participating in some kind of community service or volunteer activity in the past year.” We must make Judaism not just about what happens in our buildings. Judaism is also about what happens in this world and through Social Justice, Judaism allows us to act on what happens in this world.
  5. We must create Welcoming Institutions. It is one thing to say that we are welcoming. It is a whole other to prove it. Do our institutions truly welcome all who come through our doors? Do our websites and synagogue brochures reflect the diverse spectrum of what a Jewish family looks like in 2013? Are we reactively welcoming or are we pro-actively welcoming? This is the simplest act and yet the most difficult, for if our institutions aren’t welcoming, then no one will walk through our doors.

Some of these issues must be addressed more in-depth in individual synagogues, including where I serve as rabbi. All of these areas need to be addressed by the Conservative Movement. If we are truly pressing the reset button, and prepared to start over, then this is where we must start. This is how we reset. This is how we reengage.

Like Abraham and Sarah, we are unsure of where this journey will end, but we know where we must start. Lech Lecha. Together, if we, as a movement, are brave enough to move, then we will get to that land that God will show us.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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