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A Living Legacy

I’ve been thinking a lot about legacy this weekend. This past Shabbat, we concluded the book of Genesis by reading Parashat Vayechi. Two of the main characters of the book of Genesis, Jacob and Joseph, die. Jacob, our patriarch and our namesake as a people, spends much of the end of the book on his deathbed offering his last words to his children. One would expect words of blessing and love, an ethical will of sorts, from their father, but in many cases, Jacob did anything but bless his sons. He did not to intend punish them or yell at them. Rather, Jacob feared that as a father, as a leader, he wouldn’t be there to guide his children anymore. He wouldn’t be able to teach them right from wrong. It was a hard enough challenge when he was alive. He worried even more about their paths in life when he is gone. He told his oldest, Reuben, that he is unstable as water and shall not excel (Gen. 49:4). He told his sons Simeon and Levi that their weapons are tools of lawlessness and that his soul wouldn’t come into their council (Gen. 49:5-6).These aren’t exactly the blessings you want from your father when he is on his death bed. But there is a deep sense of fear by Jacob that all that he taught his children, the ethics and values that he himself learned as an adult after he changed his ways, would be forgotten. Jacob feared that without his leadership and guidance, his children would not continue on the trajectory that they were on.  

The portion concludes with the death of Jacob’s favored son, Joseph. Unlike his father, Joseph does not offer final blessings. Instead, he simply asked all to make a promise that in the end, when the Children of Israel left Egypt, they wouldn’t leave Joseph behind. Joseph was embalmed and mummified, as was the custom of ancient Egypt, and made his brothers promise that they would literally take his bones with him when they set out for the promised land. Joseph was worried about being left behind, figuratively and literally. Joseph was worried about being forgotten.

The haftarah reading for Parashat Vayechi, finds King David on his deathbed, also sharing last words with his loved ones. Unlike Jacob or Joseph, David is much more blunt with his words. He tells Solomon to “keep charge of God, walk in God’s ways, and follow the ethics, values, and laws of the Lord” (I King 1:3). David expected his son to follow on his path and made sure that he knew it. 

Jacob worried that all he believed in would fall by the wayside without him leading the way, Joseph wanted to live on and continue on life’s journey after he died in hopes that he could continue to impact the world in death just as he did in life, and David made sure to remind his children the importance of walking in his path and in his footsteps. On the day when our nation remembers the life of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I can’t help but think of Dr. King’s legacy as well. What were the last words he would’ve said, if he was on his deathbed? In a way, we already have that answer. 

Dr. King received daily death threats and knew that any day could be his last. That did not stop him from preaching God’s word and striving to finish building the world that the Almighty set out to create; that did not stop him from working towards a more just society. The last public speech he gave, on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, focused on the thoughts he wanted to leave this world. Legend has it that Dr. King almost didn’t share these words at the Mason Temple to Memphis Sanitation Workers. He was under the weather, but at the crowds urging, he spoke anyway. He got up there and said: 

[I]f I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?”… “Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy. Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding… And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today…

King ended his speech not knowing what would happen in his life, but said:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the next day by James Earl Ray as he stood on the balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Hotel.

He too wished that he could see his work – and the work of justice – come to fruition. He too was hoping to see the world that he dreamed off become a reality. But he knew that whether we was killed that very next day or died in his sleep at the ripe old age of 120, he wouldn’t be able to see the fruits of his labor. But he still made a promise to work at it, to fight for justice, even if he didn’t experience justice. He essentially was explaining the teaching of Rabbi Tarfon: one is not obligated to finish the task, but one is not free to ignore it either (Pirkei Avot 2:21). King knew that his dreams wouldn’t be fulfilled in his lifetime. But he believed that his followers would continue the fight. He believed that the nation would make great progress, He believed the the trajectory our nation was on would bend further towards justice. King believed his legacy was not about what he did while he was alive, but what would come of him and his beliefs after he died. A legacy is not about the impact that we have on this world when we are living. A legacy is about the impact we have generations later, long after we left this world. 

As we prepare to honor MLK’s legacy, we are reminded that this federal holiday is not a day of remembrance, but a day of service. This is not a day of reflection, but a day of action. We look at the world around us, the world that we are living in, at this transitional moment in our nation’s history, and wonder, is this a world that MLK would be proud of? We are left wondering how Dr. King would react in such a society and in such a world. Ultimately, legacy does not only live on through memory, stories, textbooks or children’s books, or movies about the civil rights movement. Legacy lives on through action. 

When we bury our loved ones in the Jewish faith, we pray that the souls of the departed are bound up in the bond of our lives. That does not mean that we believe in resurrection. That does not mean that we believe our loved ones communicate with us from the world to come, even if we find comfort in that. What this means is that as long as we live our lives just as they did, they live on. As long as we believe in the same ethics and values that they did and walk the same path, in their footsteps while creating a pathway for ourselves, they live on through us. At this turning point in our nation’s history, may we not forget to act as Dr. King acted, to live as he lived. May we fulfill his promise in his final speech so that all of society finally reaches the promised land. And may we make sure his legacy lives on through all of our actions. May he not only be remembered, but also bound up in the bond of our lives. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Watch Revereend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech here:

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How Lovely are Your Tents, Your Dwelling Places, Rawabi

This article was originally published on July 25, 2016, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

In reading the well-known narrative found in Parashat Balak this past Shabbat, in which the Moabite King Balak sends out the magician Balaam to curse the Israelites, we learn of the blessing of potential. Balak knew that he whom Balaam blessed would surely be blessed and he whom he cursed would surely be cursed. He hoped for such a curse so that the Moabites could drive them out of the land. Balaam reminded Balak’s officials though, that regardless of the silver, gold, and riches given to him, he couldn’t do anything contrary to God’s wishes. He could not just curse who he wants or bless who he wants. He had no control over the words that would come out of his mouth. Time and time again, when he approached the encampment of the Israelites, he opened his mouth and words of blessing came out.

I spent time this month in Israel on a Progressive Rabbis Mission to Israel, sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation (AEIF), and organized by AIPAC. This trip is an example of AIPAC’s efforts to widen the tent and make sure there is room for progressive Zionists among their membership. We spent the majority of one day of our trip in the occupied territories of the West Bank. We drove by parts of the West Bank that looked like abandoned ghost towns; we saw the buildings still shelled and destroyed during the second intifada, abandoned long ago and never rebuilt. I expected to see the metaphorical “curses” of the community. How the Palestinians, because of failed leadership on the Palestinian and Israeli side.

Rawabi1Yet, among the many places we visited that day was a tour of Rawabi. The first-of-its-kind planned Palestinian city, we approached it and I opened my mouth and saw nothing but blessing. Rawabi is a short drive from Ramallah, in Area A, the area of the occupied territories in which the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian police has full autonomy according to the Oslo Accords. This planned city will have 23 different neighborhoods and a total of 5,000 housing units. There are already 650 people who have moved into one of the completed neighborhoods with another 600 soon to come – the plan is for the city to have a population of 40,000 when all the housing units are complete.

But like any planned city, Rawabi is about more than just housing units: We walked Rawabi2through the 14,000 person amphitheater, the largest in the Arab world – where only weeks earlier, Mohammed Assaf, who grew up in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip and won the most recent season of Arab Idol, performed. We wandered through the center-of-town commercial district, modeled after Jerusalem’s Mamilla Mall – the first shopping center in the Palestinian territories that will have brand name stores like Kenneth Cole. And we saw the Wadina family fun center in the distance, with volley ball courts, playgrounds, and the soon-to-be safari section with off-road ATV’s and a zipline that will be built. This seems like a model city.

The city is the vision of Palestinian Billionaire Bashar Masri, who invested in Rawabi as a vision for what Palestine can one day be, a small model for what a Palestinian State in the future can look like. Masri shared with us that he was tired of waiting for the Israelis to take care of Palestinians and described himself as being treated like a second-class citizen. He also said he was tired of the corrupt and ineffective Palestinian Authority who never helped and just continued to make broken promises. He invested his own money to make Rawabi, meaning ‘the Hills’, a reality. Upon the hills of Rawabi, you can even see the Tel Aviv skyline in the distance on a clear day. But these hills are also metaphoric: the hilltop represents a vision of opportunity, of what can be, for a struggling people.

So Masri began construction in January 2010. Yet when I visited six years later, there was still much to do. Why? Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian government has made this easy for him. It took until 2012 for Israel to grant the project use of a single small access road for construction trucks. It took until 2013 for a new stretch of road to be approved for Palestinians to be permitted to drive into the town. And as of last year, Israel has still refused to widen the road, or allow for access to Rawabi from Ramallah or Nablus. Additionally, Israel connecting a water line to Israel’s water grid was promised by 2014, but that didn’t finally come until February of 2016, and Rawabi still has only a limited water supply for its residents, substantially less water than its settler neighbors has. And for what it’s worth, Masri agreed to use Israeli companies and building supplies to build the project, while employing Palestinian workers. When he said that he refused to allow products manufactured in settlements because he disagreed with settlement building, these companies agreed. The response was the right-wing government passing a law that allows a settlement to sue an organization, company, or individual who boycotts settlement products for economic damage.

And then there is the lack of support from the Palestinians. Many Palestinians criticize the city and Masri, seeing it as betrayal. Instead of seeing it as potential of what can be, they suggest that it normalizes occupation. Furthermore, many have protested the projected because Masri involved Israeli companies. And the Palestinian Authority completely betrayed him, promising to help fund the project and yet ultimately, because of the corruption of the elected leadership, they still haven’t contributed any money. The schools, medical centers, parks, water and sewage systems, and first-of-its-kind in the occupied Palestinian territories fiber-optics network are all privately funded by Masri. Rawabi is a vision of what can be and both Israeli leadership and Palestinian leadership are providing hurdles and barriers for it to reach its potential.

When Balaam opened his mouth to curse the Israelites, he only had words of blessing for them:

Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael. How lovely are your tents Jacob, Your dwelling places, Israel. (Num. 24:5)

Rashi suggests that “How lovely are your tents” refers to modesty – that the entrances of these tents didn’t face each other. They respected each other’s privacy and no one sought to look in on another’s private life. Hizkuni links the concept of “tents” and “Jacob” to Genesis 25:27 which refers to Jacob as an Ish Tam, Yoshev Ohalim, a quiet man who dwelt in tents. However, Nachmanides, the Ramban, sees this supposed-to-be curse that turned-out-to-be a blessing by Balaam as a prophecy for the future. “Your tents” refers to the current fragile state which is temporary. “Your dwelling places” focuses on a more permanent future. The blessing sees the reality of now and envisions a future that can be.

How lovely are your tents, your dwelling places. How lovely they can be and will be, if only there was support to make that a reality. Rawabi should be a prophecy fulfilled, vision that would lead towards economic growth and stability, and ultimately peace and a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians. But that has yet to come. During our time in Ramallah, we also met with Dr. Khalil Shakaki, the Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. He focused on changing statistics and research and said that while there are reasons to be pessimistic, there are still a majority of Palestinians, a majority of Israeli Jews, and a majority of Israeli Arabs who support a two-state solution.

How lovely may the tents of Rawabi be. May the temporary become permanent. May a dream become reality. Among the many conversation we had during this trip, it was also clear that Israelis and Palestinians had a shared view of their leadership: both Palestinians and Israelis don’t think their respective elected leaders were truly interested in peace. May they stop being the roadblocks to this city being achieved. If there were more projects like Rawabi, the Palestinian people would be far better off. And maybe, they too would see this as a prophecy into the future. And with this prophecy fulfilled, we could be one step closer to peace.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Standing with our Brothers and Sisters

Last week, as we began the Torah anew, and read Parashat Breishit, we did more than just simply read about the creation of the world. We read about our need, as human beings, to look out for one another, and be concerned about each other. Upon creating Adam, God declares in Genesis 2:18:

It’s not good for an individual to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for that person.

We often thing that this verse suggests our need to search for our bashert, our soul mate. We tend to believe that this verse focuses on the need to find a partner. However, I would like to suggest that this has little to do with love and companionship and instead, is a guide to our relationship with the world. It is not good for a person to be alone. So too, we cannot live in this world alone. We cannot live only focused on ourselves, on our own issues, on that which concerns us or impacts us, and ignore everything else. We cannot pretend that the hate, violence, and terror in this world does not exist. We cannot look at the world around us and become apathetic or pretend that we don’t care. We cannot think that as long as we are safe, the world is safe. We cannot pretend that we are alone and most importantly, we cannot leave our brothers and sisters alone when they need us most.

Over the past two weeks, there have been dozens of terror attacks throughout Israel. These aren’t just attacks in disputed territories in the West Bank (which still would not justify the violent acts that took place). These are attacks on individuals in downtown Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. These are attacks in quaint and quiet suburbs. These murderers are driving their cars into populated areas, and mobbing cars as Israelis drive by. They are stealing IDF soldiers’ guns and opening fire. Most often, they are stabbing incident victims in public areas with butcher knives.

I am guilty – like many of us – of just reading the headlines and accepting the reality of terror and fear. We do not know what to do and feel helpless. We read of these horrific accounts and may mourn privately, but don’t do anything. We just watch when we must be our brothers’ keepers.

We find in the Book of Daniel the reference to the Iyr, the Watcher, an angel that comes down from Heaven solely to observe They appear again in the books of the Apocrypha and are mentioned in the Kabbalistic texts of the Zohar. They just watch. They do not intervene. They do not react.

As human beings, we too are angels. We too are messengers. After all, when Abraham is visited by three angels of God, he first sees three men in the distance. It is only after greeting them and welcoming them in, that he learns of their divine tasks. We too are angels, and yet, we are becoming Watchers. We witness murder and bloodshed, a world of hate and violence, and we just watch. Our goal is to be divine messengers, not angelic observers.

We not only find the creation of life in Parashat Breishit. We also find the end of life. Soon after Cain and Abel are born to Eve, Cain murders his brother. God, already knowing the answer to the question, asks Cain where his brother Abel is. Cain responds with a challenging question of his own:

Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

Yes. We are our brothers’ keepers. We are our sisters’ keepers. We cannot only sit and watch like angelic creatures and not do anything about it. As we pray for peace, may we also stand united in support of Israel and her citizens who in the current state of affairs, risk their lives everyday by simply living their normal lives. I pray for the day that peace will come. I pray for an end to violence and terrorism. Until then, we must not be alone, and make sure that our brothers and sisters do not feel left alone either. We must look out for each other. We must stand with each other. Together, united, as each other’s angels, may we find peace.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Acting on our Obligation to “Love the Stranger”

It is customary that throughout the summer at Congregation Beth El we have summer darshanim, different congregants who teach, share, and offer words of Torah about the Torah portion. Last Shabbat, for Parashat Eikev, we were privileged to have one of our congregants, MIke Finesilver, share his thoughts about the recent events in Israel. His words of Torah are below. We invite all who are interested to share their words of Torah with the community. If you are interested in giving a D’var Torah in the future, please contact me directly. 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

D’var Torah for Parashat Eikev

By Mike Finesilver

Mike Finesilver

Mike Finesilver

In this week’s Parasha, Eikev, Moshe continues to address the Jewish people.  These parashiot are his final words before he leaves them; his farewell TED talk if you will.

Last week, Moshe recounted in detail the journey from slavery to freedom.  A reminder that we need to learn from our past, to analyze our missteps in order to be able to move forward and to change.  It also contained the six verses which make up the first parasha of the Sh’ma (our central prayer).

This week’s parasha contains nine verses which make up the second parasha of the Sh’ma.

Both of them command us to Love Adonai “Bechol L’vavecha oo’vchol nafshecha.  With all your heart and all your soul.  Last week addressed this to the individual and this week to the community.

Moshe, knows that he will not be around to go into the promise land and therefore it is important that he leaves behind a clear and concise directive.  He stresses to the people that if they/we follow the commandments, they/we will be rewarded and if not, then not.  I include “we”, because when we read the Torah, Moshe is also addressing us.

If we take care to follow the commandments, God will take care of the rest.

We are told that even though odds are not always in our favor, we will prevail over all diversity and go forth to prosper with land, with children and with wealth.  However, we are warned not to be led astray by our rewards (not to feel we have earned them), lest we be corrupted by them.

We are also reminded of our missteps in order that we do not repeat or forget them and we are also commanded to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.

“Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” So my heart has been heavy from recent events in Israel and I need to ask the question “For people who say that they follow the Torah (word for word and letter for letter), how does the command to “love the stranger” translate to some of the atrocities that took place in and around Jerusalem, perpetrated by a few extremist Jews only a week ago?

I know that Rabbi Olitzky addressed this last week, but as a Jew and a Gay Man I cannot explain the pain I experienced over the attack on the people peacefully marching in the Gay Pride rally in Jerusalem by an ultra-orthodox man wielding a knife, resulting in five marchers being seriously wounded and the death this week of a 16 year old girl, Shira Banki.  The attacker was just released from prison three weeks before for doing the same thing in 2005.  I marched in the Jerusalem Pride rally in 2007 for world pride and there were bomb threats and demonstrations that stopped the parade.  Just to be clear, this is not a loud, brightly colored, saucy parade like in Tel Aviv or New York. The Jerusalem march is a respectful rally for LGBTQ people of all ethnicities and religions who live in Jerusalem.

As if that wasn’t enough, the day after we learned of the fire bomb attack on the Palestinian settlement in the West Bank by extremist Jewish settlers, resulting in the death of 18 month old Ali Saad Dawabsha and serious injury to his four year old brother and parents.

And it makes me ask, Did we as a people not go through the holocaust where hate resulted in the destruction of six million Jews and countless LGTB people?  “Love the Stranger”

It could be very easy for us to say these are the actions of a few extremists and dismiss these acts of terrorism as not being our responsibility.  We are commanded this week to love the stranger, but the people who committed these acts were grown out of communities of hate for the stranger/the other.

Last Saturday night there was a Rally in Jerusalem with Orthodox Rabbi Benny Lau.  Lau, is the nephew of a former Israeli chief rabbi (and cousin of a current one). He addressed thousands of people who turned out to condemn these attacks.

He said “It is not possible to say ‘our hands did not spill this blood,’” Anyone who has been at a Sabbath table, or in a classroom, or in a synagogue, or at a soccer pitch, or in a club, or at a community center, and heard the racist jokes, the homophobic jokes, the obscene words, and didn’t stand up and stop it, he is a partner to this bloodshed.”

“All the worshippers in all the synagogues in Israel,” Lau continued, “all of them heard today, this very day, heard for themselves the Ten Commandments [in the weekly Torah portion]. And in them, at the top, they stood and heard, ‘Do not murder.’”

“In the name of what Torah,” he asked, his voice cracking with emotion, “in the name of what God, does someone go and murder, do people go and burn a baby and his entire family? Whose Torah is this?”

In this week’s haftarah from Isaiah we are reminded that the persecutors will be punished.

It says “Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from my hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.”Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie downBehold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.

“Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.  I also say Love the hated, for we were hated.

This parasha talks about the gift of a land that is perfect, in return for doing the work every day to follow G-d’s ordinances.  The message is clear “Do the work and reap the benefits.”  It is not about taking the law into one’s own hands to control the outcome.  This week addresses the community obligation to work every day to fulfill the mitzvot of the Torah.

We also enter the month of Elul, which begins next Shabbat and these parashiot remind us to reflect on our past actions and to make amends.  We are commanded to strive each day to surround ourselves with good deeds and mindful speech.  As a community it is important what we say, what we teach our children.   Are we teaching them to do the right thing?  Are we mindful of how we talk about others?

I feel truly blessed to have a community like ours, to see young parents bringing their children to Shacharit services.  To feel the true acceptance in this community and be surrounded by truly selfless giving and love.

May we continue to Love the Stranger and to expand a community that is built on inclusion and mitzvot.

Shabbat Shalom!

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The Promise of Peace in the Promised Land

Last year, before I even arrived to begin my tenure as rabbi at Congregation Beth El, the congregation spent the year reading Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land, a ground-breaking book by the Haaretz writer, which tells of both the triumph and tragedy of the reality of the modern state of Israel.

I recently had the privilege of having lunch with Mr. Shavit. AIPAC organized a lunch with Ari Shavit and a handful of liberal progressive community rabbis. He shared his thoughts on the terrible events that took place in Israel and in Gaza this summer. He also shared how in some ways, his views have changed since his book was published.

One thing he said that truly stands out to me is that we cannot focus on a real peace, but instead must focus on a realistic peace. A real peace is focused on drawn out negotiations and a peace process, facilitated by a third party that both sides argue is subjective. A real peace is continuously stalled by the politics involved in the peace process.

Mr. Shavit insisted that we should instead search for a realistic peace. A realistic peace does not focus on land or land swaps, but instead focuses on land use. A realistic peace  emphasizes shared water resources, shared irrigation technology, shared vegetation and growing techniques, as well as shared energy technology and opportunities. A realistic peace comes from a shared commitment to the land.

MyPromisedLandWe recently celebrated the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees. In recent years, the holiday has evolved from a Jewish Arbor Day to a Jewish Earth Day, the Jewish community’s ecological holiday, a day that helps us refocus on the land. Except Tu B’Shevat is more than that. This holiday does not just emphasis reconnecting  with the land and understanding its sanctity. Tu B’Shevat is specific to the land of Israel. Tu B’Shevat is specific to cultivating the land, planting the land, and celebrating the land.

If Ari Shavit suggests that cultivating the land and sharing the resources of the land is what we must do to reach a realistic peace, then Tu B’Shevat’s message is ultimately a message of peace. Sharing land is a shared responsibility. Sharing land is a shared opportunity. No matter religion, no matter faith, we have a shared belief in God as Creator — and a shared responsibility to take care of the land and treat it properly. Doing so — together — will lead to the peace that we seek.

Upon seeing the natural beauties of this world, we traditionally recite the following blessing:

Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam Oseh Maaseh Breisheit. 

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who continuously makes the wonders of creation.

We say this blessing when we see waterfalls and sunsets, snowstorms and canyons. We say this blessing as a reminder that the land, the land that we use and depend on, helps us to appreciate God’s presence around us. May appreciation of that land, the land of Israel, and a shared use of the resources of that land, lead us to praising God for the greatest of all miracles: peace.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Now More Than Ever, We Need Leaders Who Strive for Peace

The past several weeks, events in Israel and Jerusalem have been challenging, troubling, and scary. This comes only months after a ceasefire following a summer-long war in Gaza. The attempted assassination of right-wing Temple Mount advocate Yehuda Glick, and in turn, the killing of the man who tried to murder him, sparked violence at the Temple Mount. This also led to scary terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, with terrorists using their cars as deadly weapons, ramming the car into a train platform and killing two.

The response following these tragic events from Israeli leaders have suggested that they no longer see peace as a possibility or as a priority. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has called on Israeli police to use “aggressive force” against Arabs who are protesting. He believes that this is the only way to end the wave of violence. I, on the other hand, believe that such force only adds more fuel to the fire.

Additionally, last week, MK Naftali Bennett, arguably one of the most powerful political leaders in Israel and a threat to Netanyahu’s premiership, wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times, declaring that a Two-State Solution in no solution at all. Prime Minister Netanyahu added this week that Mahmoud Abbas incites violence against Israel and is not a true partner in peace.

What worries me is that, based on the comments of Netanyahu, Bennett, and Barkat, it seems Israel has given up on peace as a priority. Now more than ever, peace must be a priority. Now more than ever, we must work towards peace.

I am unsure what the term “partner of peace” means. We do not make peace with our friends. They are already are friends; peace is unnecessary. We make peace with our enemies. Thus, especially during these heightened moments of violence, we must do even more to pursue peace. Just as we learn in Pirkei Avot, we must be disciples of Aaron the High Priest and not just love peace, but truly pursue it.

Yet, while Israeli officials and Palestinian leaders refuse to make peace a priority, it is reassuring to find a sliver of light at dark moments in our history. I am proud of my mother, Sheryl Olitzky, and the work she does with the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, an organization geared towards bringing Jewish and Muslim women together to shatter stereotypes and work towards peace. While Israeli and Palestinian leaders seem to have given up on peace as a priority, these women came together on November 2nd for their first conference at Temple University, committed to being change agents, committed to dialogue, committed to understanding, committed to peace, committed to making this world a better place.

After all, we once lived in peace alongside each other. It was only the external factors, the pressure of those around us that altered such a sense of harmony. Jewish tradition teaches that we are descendants of Abraham’s son Isaac. Many in Islamic tradition believe that Muslims are descendants of Abraham’s son Ishmael, with Ishmael serving as a forefather to the prophet Muhammad. Two peoples descended from brothers, from brothers who enjoyed playing together.

In last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayera, we find the beginning of such a schism between these two brothers. In Genesis 21:9 we read:

Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing [with Isaac].

Out of jealousy, Sarah kicks Hagar and Ishmael out of their home. Ishmael and Isaac loved each other and played with each other. Chapters later, despite such a separation, they even reunite and re-embrace to come together to bury their deceased father. In their innocence, before they could be influenced by the outside world, they peacefully play together.

Our rabbinic commentators are so uncomfortable about Sarah kicking Ishmael and Hagar out of their home for “playing” that they try to reinterpret to word “playing” as something else entirely: attempted murder, sexual assault, idol worship. Such commentary only reinforces the simple beauty of these two boys – two fathers of two nations and faiths – playing together before they are forced apart by outside factors and peer pressure.

ShalomSalaamPeaceAt our core, we are still brothers and sisters. Our goal is to get back to a point where we can sit together and play together again. That is what the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom achieved last week and continues to work towards. That is the work – the hard work, but necessary work – that Israeli and Palestinians leaders have given up on.

I hope and pray for a time when all of our children can sit and play together, just as Ishmael and Isaac once did. I hope and pray for leaders who, even in the face of violence and hate, will be committed to seek peace, will be committed to a two-state solution, and will be committed to harmony. I pray for leaders who will be brave enough and courageous enough to work towards peace even when it is not popular, even if it won’t get them reelected. I pray for leaders who will remember that at our core, in spite of such terror and violence, we are brothers. May we return to a time when we can play together again, and may the time come speedily in our day.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Mercy and Refuge

I am proud of the morals and ethics the Israel Defense Forces strives to uphold. While Israel, and the Israeli Army, is determined to destroy the Hamas terrorist regime whose sole purpose is the destruction of the State of Israel, it goes out of its way to prevent collateral damage, to prevent the death of innocent civilians. Even with that being the case though, this is impossible in Gaza. It is impossible when there are 1.8 million in such a small radius. It is impossible when Hamas isn’t interested in building an infrastructure. It is impossible when Hamas is more interested in building tunnels to sneak into Israel and enact terror than they are in building bomb shelters to protect their own people. It is impossible when Hamas stores rockets in mosques, hospitals, and schools. This past Friday, the IDF stated that terrorists opened fire, firing mortars and anti-tank missiles from within a United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) School. It resulted in the death of Staff Sgt. Guy Levy. Staff Sgt. Levy was hesitant to shoot into the school for fear of harming innocent civilians.

This came a day after news broke that a UN School what served as a refuge and safe house for some 1,500 men, women, children, and elderly, was hit. Media was quick to judge that it was hit by the IDF.  Israel would not confirm this. Israel suggests that this was actually a result of Hamas misfiring one of their rockets, an errant missile hitting the school. It is unclear at this point who or what caused the strike. What is clear is that 16 people are dead, another 200 wounded. None of them soldiers. None of them terrorists. None of them intended targets. All of them a tragedy.

Last past Shabbat, we finished reading Book of Numbers, reading the final Torah portion in Bamidbar, Parashat Mas’ei. The Torah portion recounts the journey of the Israelites in the desert, as they stand on the banks of the river Jordan, preparing to enter the land of Canaan, preparing to enter the Promised Land. Once the Israelites enter the land, one of their first orders of business is to set up Iray Miklat, Cities of Refuge. Miklat is the modern Hebrew word for bomb shelter, where Israelis have spent way too much of their time over the last few weeks.  When I lived in Jerusalem several years ago, we used our Miklat was a storage closet. I never could’ve imagined needing to use it to stay safe. Now it is refuge for millions.

We are instructed to set up Cities of Refuge in the Torah because our tradition clearly distinguishes between intentional murder and accidental death. It makes the distinction between intentionally striking another with stone, iron, or wood and accidently hurting someone without malice.

Hamas targets civilians. Israel does all it can to avoid civilians. It warns individuals to leave the area; the IDF gives them a head’s up that there are terrorists in the area and urges civilians to evacuate. That is just. Yet, there are few places to evacuate to. The best efforts by the IDF to be ethical in their pursuits doesn’t change the fact though that there are dead children, that there are innocent lives lost. Some say that is the reality of war. Our Torah reminds us that unintentional loss is simply reality of life.

Yet, knowing the realities of war, and the realities of life, we must do all we can to limit the need for such metaphorical Cities of Refuge. We must do all we can to limit such unintentional loss, because the reality is that loss is loss. Families grieve. Bloodied bodies are buried.

During the mournful three week period between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av on the Jewish calendar, we acknowledge the violence that God witnesses in the Promised Land. In Lamentations, read on the 9th of Av, God reacts to the destruction, to the death, to the violence, that occurs in the Holy Land:

“My eyes fail with tears, my innards burn. . .because the young children and the sucklings swoon in the broad places of the city.” (Lamentations 2:11)

God mourns such loss, be it intentional or unintentional. God cries. And we cry too. Our eyes fill with tears as we hear of lives lost, brave young men and women of the Israel Defense Forces defending our homeland, and innocent Palestinian men, women, and children who are trapped by Hamas’ terrorist regime. We seek symbolic Cities of Refuge as we acknowledge and atone for innocent lives lost in Israel’s fight against terror. And we pray. We pray for an end to the violence. We pray for an end to loss of life. We pray for mercy.

Our blood is the same color – and too much of it has been spilled. May we work to no longer have a need to build symbolic Cities of Refuge. May we build towards a day when there will no longer be such loss of life.

During this three week period of fighting,the lives of an entire generation of Israeli and Palestinian children have been forever changed. Their views of the future are tainted. Their hope in the future is lost. Mine is not. May we teach these children to live. May we teach these children to live together. May we teach these children the importance of peace. And may we never stop working to make that peace a reality.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Inevitability, Yet Impurity, of War

War is never easy. It is easier to ignore what is going on when we can go about our lives on the other side of the world, but when we are in the west and hearts are in the east, war is impossible to ignore. Operation Protective Edge, the IDF’s current operation against Hamas in Gaza, began a ground invasion only days ago, following aerial attacks of Hamas terrorists and rocket launching sites for an extended period of time.

War is not the ideal. Peace is what we always strive for, no matter what. We aren’t just told to love peace. We must pursue it, like the disciples of Aaron, to Ohev Shalom v’Rodef Shalom. Yet, war, even when it causes our stomachs to turn is sometimes necessary and often inevitable. That is the situation that we find ourselves in. A Palestinian people in Gaza, truly being held hostage by Hamas and its terrorist regime that is committed to the destruction of the state of Israel.

The Israeli government has stressed “Israel uses missiles to protect its civilians and Hamas is using civilians to protect its missiles.” That is true. Still, it is clear is that there have been an abundance of civilian casualties. They are inevitable when Hamas shoots rockets out of apartment buildings, school playgrounds, and hospitals. That doesn’t mean that we don’t mourn. That doesn’t mean that our hearts also do not break for the innocent Palestinians that are also caught in the crosshairs of this war with Hamas.

We know that war is inevitable at times. We know that war is sometimes the reality. We find war in last Shabbat’s Torah reading. In Parashat Mattot, the Israelites go to war with the Midyanim, the Midianites, for revenge and retribution. In one of the more challenging parts of our Torah, we find examples of revenge, of civilian casualty, of slaying of children. We are reminded that war changes us. We are reminded that even when war is necessary, we can easily get consumed by the darkness of war. We get consumed by the impurity of war. Fascinatingly, in Numbers 31:19, we read:

Everyone among you and among those who are captive who has slain a person shall purify himself.

This doesn’t just have to do with becoming impure by touching a corpse, makes a clear distinction between touching a corpse and slaying another human being. What the Torah is telling us is that killing another, even in a time of war, is impure. Even when it is necessary, it causes us to be impure. Sometimes, it causes the worse to come out of us. It causes radicals to burn a Palestinian boy alive because terrorists kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teens. It causes children in Sderot, who for years have had recess in their bomb shelter-converted playgrounds, to cheer as they see missiles landing in Gaza from the IDF in the distance.

Eleazar the Priest instructs, like with any spiritual impurity found in the Torah, that those who have slain an individual need to remove themselves from the encampment. We do this to start over. We do this to repurify. Regardless of ethics, morals, values, justice, when we kill another, even when it is justified, we must repurify ourselves.

Maimonides taught that “Great is Peace. The whole Torah was given in order to promote peace.” How do we promote peace when we are consumed by war? We ignite the darkness of war by promoting peace. We stand with Israel, and as Israel continues to defend herself from Hamas, and terrorism, may she do all in her power to defend and protect all innocent civilians, Israelis and Palestinians, whose lives are threatened as a result of the cowardly actions of Hamas. And we strive to purify ourselves. We find light in the darkness of war, in the darkness of reality. At a time of darkness, we search for light. And where there is no light, we create that light. We become that light. Just as we are commanded to be an ohr lagoyim, a light unto the nations, we strive to be that light.  We light that light.


Earlier in the week, I came across the “Prayer of the Mothers,” written by Sheikha Ibtisam Mahameed and Rabbi Tamar Elad-Applebaum, two female faith leaders in Israel, one Muslim, one Jewish, both mothers. They encourage on Friday, a holy day for both faiths, an extra candle to be lit for peace.These women, in bringing light to these dark moments offered the following prayer:

CandleLet us Light Candles for Peace
Two mothers, one plea:
Now, more than ever, during these days of so much crying, on the day that is sacred to both our religions, Friday, Sabbath Eve
Let us light a candle in every home – for peace:
A candle to illuminate our future, face to face,
A candle across borders, beyond fear.
From our family homes and houses of worship
Let us light each other up,
Let these candles be a lighthouse to our spirit
Until we all arrive at the sanctuary of peace.

Let the light purify us from the darkness of war. Let such light shine upon us, to renew ourselves as well. Let the light allow us to see the possibility of peace in the distance, even when it seems impossible. And let the light protect all innocent civilians, Israelis and Palestinians, from the terrorism of Hamas, from the darkness, until that peace is achieved. Amen.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Fasting for Peace

I began my first day at Congregation Beth El with a beautiful minyan. Today was a rare Tuesday morning when the Torah was read since today is also a fast day, the 17th of Tammuz. This minor fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem which eventually culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple. Today’s fast day thus also begins the three week mourning period between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, the day in which we mourn the destruction of the Temple.

Today was also unique because it was the one day on the calendar in which Jews around the world and Muslims around the world were fasting at the same time. The fast of the 17th of Tammuz fell during the Muslim celebration of Ramadan, which includes sunrise-to-sunset fasts daily throughout the month.

While the fast of Sheva-Assar b’Tammuz and the fasting that takes place on Ramadan are for unique reasons, it is clear that fasting has been a common practice in Judaism and Islam for centuries. Jewish law codes list fasting as a common expression and ritual that shows proper intention before the Divine, in hopes that God will answer one’s requests and petitions. Fasting brings together community. Muslims feel this during Ramadan. Jews feel this on Yom Kippur.

I came across an interesting hashtag on Twitter today, #FastForPeace. At a time when there is too much violence in Israel, when hundreds of rockets rain down on Israel from the Gaza Strip on a daily basis, when there are too many civilians dying in Gaza as Israel attempts to cripple the terrorist efforts of Hamas, we pray for peace. The cease-fire that was proposed by Egypt was accepted by Israel but rejected by Hamas. This has led to more rockets from Hamas and in turn, Netanyahu vows to exert ‘great force’ in Gaza. As the violence continues and our thoughts, minds, and hearts turn east, we fast for peace. We pray for peace.

We pray for a time when we can embrace each other as neighbors, as brothers and sisters, and fulfill the vision of the Psalmist:

How pleasing it will be when we can all sit in unity as brothers (Psalm 133).

FastforPeaceAs I explored this hashtag more, I realized that this was a cause of Jewish and Muslim friends, determined to be defined by that which unites us, not that which divides us. This is a noble effort by peers who believe that the voice of love and peace must be louder than the voice of hate and war.

As the fast enters its last hours and my stomach grumbles, I have found this fast day to be quite meaningful. Truthfully, this fast has not been meaningful for me because I reflected on the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem some two thousand years ago. Rather, it has been meaningful, because it reminded me that even when it seems impossible, we must not give up on peace. We must unite in the belief that peace is possible and in the words of Pirkei Avot, we must not only love peace, we must pursue it.

Let this fast day bring together our communities as one community. As we fast, let us fast for peace. Let our intentions be expressed and our petitions for peace be heard. As our stomachs turn from hunger and our throats remain parched, let us be satiated by a shared vision of peace and harmony. May there be peace in Israel, and in the world, and may we witness it soon.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Importance of Hashtag Activism

The following article was originally published on June 30, 2014, by Haaretz. It was written before the devastating news that our brothers Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali had been found murdered. It was written before the equally troubling news of the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Still, I believe that the #BringBackOurBoys campaign achieved something: it united us as a people, a people that regularly disagrees with each other. Let us be assured that they did not die in vain. Let us remain united as a community to end terrorism, hatred, violence, and bigotry. Let us remain united so that young boys and girls, regardless of faith or ethnicity, do not feel scared to go for a walk. Let us remain united in our commitment for peace. May the memories of Eyal, Naftali, Gilad, and Mohammed, be for a blessing and unite us and inspire us to do more and work harder to bring peace to this world.

 The full article can be found on their website here.

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#BringBackOurBoys matters not because it can solve anything, but because it raises awareness and ultimately unites us as a people. 

I vividly remember as a child, tying yellow ribbons around the tree on my family’s front yard. During the Gulf War of the early 1900s, as a sign of pride and patriotism, Americans were encouraged to tie yellow ribbons to trees to “support our troops.” Ten years ago, the yellow ribbon appeared again, as American troops invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, to “bring our troops home.” At that time, the yellow ribbon image was appearing on bumper stickers and car magnets instead of trees. The ribbon was never about action. The ribbon did not cause political leaders to withdraw troops and bring an end to the military action. What ribbons did, though, was unite a nation and a people. Yellow ribbons raised awareness. For similar reasons, we wear ribbons on our labels to raise awareness for a cause or fight to end an illness or disease.

Yet, we live in a virtual world. We live in a world centered on Internet connectivity over personal relationships. Facebook is more central to our relationships than face-to-face interactions. We communicate through texting and posting; we share news via tweets. Case in point: you are currently reading this Haaretz article on your computer screen, tablet or smartphone, instead of in print. In the world of social media and social networks, hashtags have taken the place of yellow ribbons. The hashtag unites us. The hashtag raises awareness. The hashtag identifies us with a particular issue or cause.

BringBackOurBoysAs World Jewry is by now well aware, Israeli teenagers Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel were kidnapped on June 12 by Hamas operatives while returning home from the Gush Etzion Yeshiva where they study. Following the viral success of #BringBackOurGirls that was launched two months ago when over 200 Nigerian girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists, the #BringBackOurBoys campaign was launched to raise awareness of the kidnapping of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali. The Israel Defense Forces Twitter feed helped spread the hashtag and political leaders in Israel, the United States, and throughout the world have joined in, tweeting the hashtag. The analytics website hashtags.org has confirmed that #BringBackOurBoys has gone viral.

Some in the Jewish community are concerned that such a hashtag is meaningless. Others have been bashed for using it to push their own agendas. I, however, see the hashtag as unifying. As a look at my Twitter feed, I see a diverse spectrum of members of the Jewish community acknowledging on social media that their thoughts and prayers are that Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel will return home safely – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist; religious and secular; progressive liberals and right-wing traditionalists; supporters of AIPAC, supporters of J-Street and those who support neither. Regardless of one’s views on peace, on settlement construction, on Israel giving up land, on Abbas’ or Netanyahu’s true willingness and desire to work toward peace, the Jewish community is unified in hashtag activism. The Jewish community is unified in its commitment to #BringBackOurBoys.

It is true that, like yellow ribbons, hashtags do not solve anything. Hashtags do not lead to military operations. Hashtags do not lead to world leaders putting pressure on Hamas, or the Palestinian Authority for that matter. Hashtags do not lead to saving our boys. Hashtags do not lead to action. However, as a more important first step, hashtags raise awareness and ultimately unite us as a people. #BringBackOurBoys reminds us that despite our disagreements and differences, our hopes and prayers are the same. We are ultimately still “am echad im lev echad,” one people with one heart.

Let us embrace our disagreements because disagreement is a part of rabbinic tradition. More importantly though, that us unite and raise awareness. Let us remember that regardless of one’s observance or political beliefs, we each deserve to live our lives without fear. We each deserve to live in safety. May we continue to raise awareness, and may awareness lead to action.

 – Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

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