Tag Archives: Hate

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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Being Held to a Higher Standard

When trying to understand what we look for in a leader, everyone has their own list of essential qualities. Forbes offers a list of leadership qualities for business success which include honesty, confidence, and commitment. CNN and Careerbuilder.com add passion and respect to the list of necessary qualities. Even rabbinic tradition offers its own definition of a leader. Midrash explains the qualities of the High Priest by suggesting that he must be handsome, of great strength, of great wealth, of great knowledge, and have many years of experience (Vaykira Rabba 26:9). While we may disagree on what those leadership qualities look like, it is clear that we each expect much from our leaders.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Emor. This section of our narrative begins with specific requirements of what the priests, the religious and ritual leaders of the Israelites, can and cannot do. In Parashat Kedoshim, we were taught that “you should be holy for I, the Lord, Your God, Am Holy.” Holiness is what we all seek. Holiness through our words and holiness through our actions. And yet, at the beginning of Parashat Emor, we find a greater and more detailed list of expectations for the priests. 

The priests who offered biblical sacrifices on behalf of the Israelites are forbidden from coming into contact with the dead. Additionally, the priests are prohibited from shaving their heads or sideburns. They were forbidden from profaning God’s name. There were limits to whom the priest could marry, how a priest must physically look, to whom and what a priest can and cannot come in contact with.

Remarkably, these verses – unlike most found in the Torah – are specific and limited to the leaders of the community. Clearly, the Torah is suggesting that leaders are held to a different standard. A leader is supposed to be different – not perfect, for no one is. But the beginning of Parashat Emor teaches us that a leader is supposed to be held to a higher standard. A leader puts the interests of those that she or he represents before others. A leader cares about others more than himself or herself. A leader does not ignore the actions of followers. Instead, a leader calls them out when their behavior is inappropriate and defers from the leader’s vision.

If Torah teaches us that leaders are held to a higher standard, that leaders strive for a different level of holiness, then it is our responsibility to call out leaders when all that they do and all that they say are the complete opposite of that which is holy. When our leaders lead through bigotry, hate, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and misogyny, we must call it out. Striving to be holy means seeing each individual as holy. And leading through hate is the opposite of holiness, it is chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. 

We expect more from our leaders because of the impact that they have on us. The Torah speaks of a great sense of kedushah of the priests, not just because they performed ritual sacrifices, but because of the opportunities they had to guide so many. We should expect our leaders to guide us. May their actions be holy so that they guide us to a life of holiness. May they also see the holiness in each individual. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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A Response to the Tragic News in France

The news coming out of France the past couple of days is tragic, scary, and heartbreaking. First, the news of a terrorist attack at Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in which 12 people were murdered, including a police officer. Today only added to our communal heartache  as reportedly 4 hostages and the gunman have been killed after a terrorist took hostages in a Kosher supermarket in Paris. Why was Charlie Hedbo targeted? Because it represented freedom of expression, regardless of how satirical or offensive that expression was at times. Why was this supermarket targeted? Because the store’s patrons were Jews. We pray for a Shabbat Shalom — truly a Shabbat of peace, which we all greatly need. We find that peace in friends, in family, in coming together as community.

Apparently, French police called rabbis minutes before Shabbat started and asked them to cancel Shabbat services at their synagogues for security reasons. I cannot imagine receiving such a call. I cannot imagine living in a place where welcoming in Shabbat, where holding services, was a security risk.

May we take this Shabbat and come together as community. May we come together for all those who cannot, for those whom were murdered and will never again experience a Shabbat of peace, for those whose synagogues have been closed this Shabbat for security reasons and cannot come together, and for all of us who deeply need community, who deeply need to wrestle with God, and who deeply need each other’s shoulders to lean on at such a dark moment. May tomorrow bring light and may that ray of sunshine light up the darkness that we face, the darkness that exists. May that light put an end to hate, an end to fear, and be an expression of unity, of love, of peace.

May all humanity realize that we have not come into being to hate or to destroy. We have come into being to praise, to labor, and to love.

May we love each other a little bit more this Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Be Like Esau

A week and a half ago, I ended Shabbat as I always do, by checking the news and seeing what has happened in the world over the past twenty-four hours. It was then that I read about the arson attack at the Hand-in-Hand school in Jerusalem. A preschool classroom in this school, a school overseen be Arab and Jewish principals, a school where hundreds of Arab and Jewish students learn together from Pre-Kindergarten until 12th grade, was engulfed in flames, likely set on fire by Jewish extremists in a so called “price tag” attack. In addition to the arson attack, graffiti has regularly been found on the walls, which read: Death to Arabs, and You can’t coexist with cancer. Such attacks are nationalistically motivated hate crimes, and this was likely in response to the many terrorist attacks that have occurred throughout the past several weeks, most notably the butchering of worshippers in a synagogue in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof.

Yet, even more notably, was the response of the students. On Sunday, the day after the attack, Arab and Jewish students gathered in the park across from the school. Supporting the school’s motto of “We refuse to be enemies,” one student said: “This is a bad thing, but it shows us how important this school – and the idea behind it – is”. “We want to prove that Arabs and Jews can live together in Israel,” he said. “We are all human and need to respect each other.” No retaliation. Only love.

I am reminded of this summer when Eyal, Naftali, and Gil’ad were kidnapped as they hitchhiked home from their West Bank Yeshiva and were brutally murdered and burned to a crisp. Rachel Fraenkel, the mourning mother of Naftali Fraenkel, made a public statement when hearing of the revenge killing of Muhammad Abu Khdeir by Jewish extremists. “Even in the abyss of mourning,” she said, “it is difficult to describe how distressed we are by the outrage committed in Jersualem.” She denounced such a revenge killing and even visited Abu Khdeir’s mother to offer condolences.

To mourn the loss of a child. To mourn the destruction of a school. And still, to dream of a better future, and to not hold a grudge. To not want revenge and only to want peace. That is powerful. That is what we all strive for and who we strive to be. We cannot resort to “price tag” racist retaliation. We cannot resort to the belief that you harmed me so I must harm you. We are better than that. We must be better than that.

Last Shabbat, we read Parashat Vayishlach. In this Torah portion, we find Jacob journeying to reunite with his brother Esau. Jacob attempts to buy forgiveness, as we see in Gen. 32:6:

I have acquired cattle, donkeys, sheep, servants, and I send this message to you in hopes of gaining your favor.

Jacob hoped that if he gave Esau enough gifts, all would be forgotten – the lopsided birthright for soup exchange and the stolen blessing from their father. When Jacob heard instead that Esau was coming to meet him, he was fearful that Esau would attack him.

Finally, after sending his family ahead, after wrestling with an angel, he saw Esau coming towards him, accompanied by 400 men. Jacob was scared. And Esau came running towards him, but not to attack. As we read in Genesis 33:4:

And Esau ran to greet him and embraced him, hugged him, fell on his neck, and kissed him and wept.

In a way, as if Esau was letting go as well, letting go of the grief, letting go of the grudge, he leaned on his brother Jacob, fell on his neck, and just began wailing. He was emotionally exhausted from hating him, from being so angry with him and realizing that this got him nowhere. Esau let it go. And not only was Jacob better off as a result. Esau was better off as well.

We focus on Jacob and Esau and how our tradition made Jacob the hero and Esau the scapegoat. Yet, I want to take it one step further. We can’t just say that Esau was innocent and got a bad rap. We must actually strive to be like Esau. We must be more like Esau. As difficult as repentance is, it’s easy to ask for forgiveness once we realize that we have done wrong. It is much harder to have been wronged and victimized and still be willing to forgive.

We must be brave and courageous enough to let it go and forgive. We must always be willing to hug and embrace someone and move on. May we be strong enough to forgive. May we be strong enough to be like Esau.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Letting Go of the Hate

You have to wonder if the heat is getting to people or something! Every story in the news lately seems to be about a hate crime. While we celebrate the joys of life, it is hard to do so without reflecting on the dark moments that are going on throughout the nation. Two weeks ago, when one drove into the small town of Algoma, Wisconsin, one was greeted by more than just a welcome sign. Six signs, painted on plywood were pounded into the ground at the entrance of the town. Following the “Welcome to Algoma” sign and its population facts, there were signs that read “Jews go home” and “Kill all Jews,” signs that had swastikas on them. Such anti-Semitism, such hate and hate crimes, is not new for the Jewish community. Unfortunately, such hate isn’t new for this country either, and thus, it does not always seem to be news-worthy.

Just this past week, in a clear hate crime, two men holding hands in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan were beaten up by six other men, who accosted them on the sidewalk yelling anti-gay slurs. At the beginning of the summer, in mid-June, a seventeen-year-old entered a neighborhood in Santa Barbara, California, beating a man with a hammer screaming at him to get out because his kind was not welcome in the community. The 40-year-old man was of Mexican descent. The seventeen-year-old criminal with a hammer was going on a splurge of hate crimes towards the Hispanic community.  Hate crimes, bias-motivated crimes that occur when the perpetrator targets a specific individual or group because of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability, are incomprehensible. The question is, how do we respond to such hate?

Four years ago, President Obama signed into law the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, named after Matthew Shepard, on the ten year anniversary of the date when he was brutally beaten, and tied to a fence, eventually left for dead — murdered — in Lamaire, Wyoming because of his sexual orientation. The goal of this law was to expand the definition of a hate-crime and thus, to prevent such crimes from taking place. The quick news brief that I just shared suggests that such crimes continue, that such hate continues We need to continue to fight hate crimes, but I believe that legislation is not the only answer. What we truly need to fight is hate. Passing legislation does not end hate. Only promoting love truly ends hate. This sounds elementary and pediatric. Some may think that such an idea is immature or too simplistic. However, to love, to truly love, despite the hate that surrounds us is the most difficult, yet most sophisticated response we can take.

Letting go of the hateThat begins at the basic level. That begins with inclusion as children and that begins with inclusion as parents. That begins with acceptance of all, for all of us have felt excluded at times. All of us have felt hated by a stranger, hated not for something we have done, but for who we are or who we are not. Our natural response, our animal instinct, is to hate them back. Our animal instinct is to hate another because we feel hated. Instead, I want to push us to love. That is the hardest thing to do. To love instead of hate. To embrace those who have scorned us. Yet, that is what we are supposed to do.

At the conclusion of last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tetze, we are reminded of this. In the middle of Moses’ farewell address, the Torah portion ends with a dark reminder of what happened to the Israelites while wandering through the desert. While wandering, the People of Israel were attacked by Amalek. We are pained by such an attack because this wasn’t simple warfare. The warriors, the soldiers, were not attacked. This was not a battle. Instead Amalek snuck up on us from behind and murdered those who were in the back of our caravan, the innocent women, children, babies, and elderly. This attack, a biblical hate crime, has such a lasting negative impact on our collective memory as a people that anyone who has attempted to destroy the Jewish people is identified as a descendant of Amalek. Haman, who tried to murder the Jews of Shushan, a story which we reread every Purim, is considered by tradition to be a descendant of Amalek. Many in the Jewish community consider also Hitler to be a descendant of Amalek and more recently, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be a descendant as well.

Yet our Torah portion ends with Moses saying the following:

“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how undeterred by fear of God, they surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary… You shall erase the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”

How can in the same verse, the last verse of the Torah portion, Deuteronomy 25: 19, it can say Teem’che et-Zecher Amalek,  to erase the memory of Amalek, and also command us Lo Tishkakh, to not forget?!

How can we be told to simultaneously not remember, but also to not forget? Ultimately, these are two different charges. “Do not forget” demands that we never forgot the painful events that we have been victim to throughout our history. Do not forget the victims of these events. Do not forget that hate and hate crimes are still reality. However, where do we go following painful events? Do we also participate in what can only be defined in 2013 as a hate crime because we were the victim of one? Do we stoop to the level of those who are so unfortunately lost in this world that they can’t see that we are each made in God’s image? NO. We can’t. We mustn’t. We are better than that. We must be better than that.

Radical rabbis (and even more mainstream traditional commentators) may suggest erasing the memory of Amalek means erasing Amalek, blotting them out, destroying the people. I disagree. It’s about erasing the pain, the hurt, and the grudge that is the result of such a hateful act.

In order to end the endless cycle of hatred we must be able to move on. To erase the memory of a scornful act is to give another a clean slate, but also to give us a clean slate. For holding the grudge is much harder. We too often hold a grudge towards another, not because of something that was done to us, but instead because of something done towards someone else generations ago. Like a modern day Romeo and Juliet – but hopefully with a happier, less Shakespearean ending, we must be able to accept that acts of another, from a previous generation, does not make them our enemy today. Instead, let us make that enemy our friend.

For the only way to truly bring peace to this world is through is through love. The only way to truly end hate is through love. The only way to love is to be willing to let go of the past, to let go of hateful acts, to be able to forgive. To forgive, but not forget. Lo Tishkach. To forgive, to let go, to promote love even when others preach words of hate, is to release a huge burden off our own shoulders

During this Hebrew month of Elul, leading up to the High Holy Days, during this time of Yamim Noraim , these Days of Awe and Amazement, we are taught to do Chesbon Hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. We are not asked – or even permitted – to take such an accounting of another. It is not our job to judge another. Rather, we can only turn inwards, and reflect on who we are, how we act, whom we embrace, and how we can change. Leading up to the High Holy Days, we pray for a fresh start. But it doesn’t just happen. We make it happen – through love and through letting go. We make it happen through being able to forget, even if we never quite forget.

May we never forget the victims of hateful acts and hate crimes. Yet, may we – in the year ahead – be willing to erase the hateful feeling inside us. May we remember to love, so that this feeling is all that our children will ever know. To live in a world full of love! That is something that I would surely remember, and never forget.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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