Tag Archives: Jewish

Our Children are no longer Children

SchoolShootingTextMessage

“Hey mom i dont know whats going on here at school but i love you and im so thankful for everything youve done for me. i love you so much”

“everyone is saying theres a shooter on campus i dont know whats going on but i love you and sad so much”

These are the text messages that a teenager sent her mother in the middle of our country’s latest school shooting, this time at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California on Thursday, November 14, when a 16-year-old student showed up on his birthday with a handgun and shot five students, two of them fatally, before shooting himself in the head.

The school is expected to remain closed until December 2, when it will reopen and students will be expected to go about their lives as if this didn’t happen, as if they aren’t dealing with the very real trauma of surviving a mass shooting, the trauma of such a shooting taking place in their school, a place where they are supposed to be protected and safe. Because this is “business as usual” in America in 2019, when we force our children to grow up and they lose their innocence.

In Parashat Vayeira we read of the disturbing narrative  when Abraham kicks Hagar and Ishmael out of their home. Ignoring the questionable and disturbing actions of our biblical patriarch, I can’t help, but focus on the Hebrew of what happens. Hagar is sent into the wilderness, with her child, her yeled in Hebrew, by her side, with a little bit of bread and a skin of water. They wandered aimlessly until the water was gone and Hagar expected she would die.

Not wanting to watch her child die, the text says: “Al ereh b’mot hayeled,” “don’t let me look at this child dying,” again using the word yeled. But when Hagar began to cry, the Torah tells us “Vayishma Elohim et Kol HaNa’ar,” “God heard the cry of the lad,” using the Hebrew word na’ar instead of yeled. A yeled is a young child, a kid, vulnerable and dependent on a parent, much like Ishmael was in this moment. But a na’ar, is more than a lad, more than an adolescent, or a young adult, or a teenager. A Na’ar is someone who is forced to grow up – someone who was vulnerable before, but empowered at this moment. A na’ar is someone who no longer follows, but instead is ready to lead.

We have no more yeledim. We have no more children. In this day and age, our children have grown up too fast. They have been forced to. They have become na’arim. Our children have more lockdown drills in their schools than fire drills. More than 230,000 schoolchildren have been exposed to gun violence in their schools since the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. We have forced our children to grow up way to soon. We have destroyed any age of innocence for them. We have turned yeledim into na’arim long before they should be forced to deal with the hardships and heartache of this world.

Why was it that Hagar cried out, but it was Ishmael’s voice that God heard? And why is it that after hearing Ishmael’s cries, does an angel call out to Hagar in return? Dr. Ellen Frankel teaches that “sometimes it’s our children, speaking from where they are, who teach us how to see what we need to survive… [that] a child’s tears reach the heavens.”

We have failed our children. This most recent school shooting is just another example of that. But the March for our Lives and the movement that the students from Parkland, Florida launched was a sign that our children are now na’arim, that they are empowered, that they will bring about change. And just as God hears Ishmael’s cries and responds to Hagar, God will hear the voices of these na’arim, of these newly empowered young adults and their angelic work will protect us all. The brokenness of this world has turned each yeled into a na’ar, but I pray that, like Ishmael, they are empowered as a result. As Dr. Ellen Frankel said, their tears reach the heavens. May they reach all of us as well – and inspire us to do the necessary work to protect all of us who are wandering, lost in this wilderness.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Instead of Arguing over Semantics, We Must Act

Controversy took over the headlines this week – you know, not real controversy, but the type of controversy that we’ve come to expect in a 24-hour news cycle where every tweet, comment, and quote get over analyzed and twisted out of context. This week, in reference to the detention facilities that the Trump administration has set up on the US-Mexico border, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to them as concentration camps. Many of her political opponents were quick to criticize her, suggesting that one cannot use Holocaust allegory to condemn the human rights violations happening right now in our country, as if we say “never again” but don’t actually mean it, like it only means never again to us.

I understand that using the term concentration camps is a trigger. I understand that doing so suggests that the actions of the Trump administration are no different than Nazi Germany. I would never say that or suggest that. But we have been so consumed over the last several days by whether or not these are concentration camps,  and ignored the half a dozen children – CHILDREN – who have died in these detention facilities for lack of care, or the babies born prematurely in these internment camps without being seen by a medical professional. We’ve debated appropriate analogies instead of highlighting the reports that a traumatic and dangerous situation is unfolding for some 250 infants, children, and teens at the border who have been locked up for 27 days without adequate food, water, or sanitation.

And it doesn’t matter that there are those historians who say that concentration camps is the appropriate term, because I am not sure it is the appropriate term. But we get consumed and distracted by those arguments, by those who are trying to prove that concentration camps is an appropriate term, or those who suggest that using such a term minimizes the actual horrors of the Holocaust. We end up ignoring the President’s promise of a modern-day Kristellnacht – yes, I too used such an analogy — reporting that he will soon be demanding that ICE begin rounding up millions – MILLIONS – of residents to arrest them, detain them, and deport them, because of their immigration status, and will question those based on how they look or the languages they speak.

The 24-hour news cycle has forced us down this narrowly-focused path where we only have tunnel vision, where we are arguing over semantics, and ignoring the actual problem, refusing to act entirely. It’s as if only certain people can say certain things, like decrying human rights violations can only be done by those who they themselves have suffered such violations, like using the term concentration camp is reserved only for survivors of the Shoah. Unfortunately, as there are fewer and fewer survivors left, it is up to those who only learned about such atrocities and thank God, didn’t live through them, to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself. Or even worse, it is up to us to make sure society doesn’t turn a blind eye, when history does repeat itself.

In Parashat Behaalotecha, we are introduced to Eldad and Meidad, two individuals who we only hear of for the very first time in Numbers 11:26. The text tells us that vatanach aleihem haRuach, that God’s divine spirit rested on them, and they offered prophecy. When a young man runs out to complain to Joshua and Moses that two random men are prophesizing and speaking truth to power, Joshua freaks out, but Moses puts him in his place. He says: It should be that all of God’s people are prophets, and that God’s spirit rests with everyone.

It is on all of us to speak up when we see the atrocities going on all around us. And maybe we are overly hyperbolic. But maybe, just maybe, such analogies are appropriate. And most definitely, such analogies bring attention to the problem – to kids locked in cages, to ICE agents raiding apartment buildings and elementary schools, to families being separated, to children being denied safety and sanitation by this supposed land of the free. We all have an obligation to be that prophetic voice – not just our leaders. And especially when one attempts to silence another for calling out such atrocities, or for the imagery they use when doing so, we must speak up and be reminded that God’s divine spirit rests on all of us. We are all prophets. We must all speak truth to power.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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To be a Person of God, you must see your Fellow as a Person of God

Congregation Beth El began our celebration of Pride month with beautiful Torah written by my rabbinic colleague, Rabbi Rachel Marder.

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This teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunin, the reminder that the world was created for our sakes, is found in Tractate Sanhedrin 37a of the Babylonian Talmud. The mishnah where this appears comes to this conclusion following the reminder that each of us was created from the same being, each of us are descendants of Adam HaRishon, the first human. The mishnah clarifies that each of us was created from a single being for the sake of peace, so that no single person can say, I am greater than you, or you are less than I am, because of how you look,  how you speak, how you dress, how you identify, or how you love.

The haftarah reading for Parashat Naso  introduces a woman who desperately wants to be a mother, and vows to become a Nazarite so that the message from an angel of God that she will have a child will come true. Once that child was born, at the end of the haftarah, he becomes the most well-known of all the Nazirites in our Bible, Samson.

The text tells us that a Malach Adonai, an angel of God comes to Manoach’s wife to give her this prophecy. But when she describes what happened to Manoach, she says something different. She refers to this beings as an Ish Elohim, a man or person of God. She was able to see the being who came to speak to her, and saw the divine nature of that person. She saw his very essence. And that was enough.

Ultimately during Pride month, and each and every day, that is what we are to do. We must see each individual — gay and straight, bisexual and  pansexual, transgender and cisgender, queer, and ally, as an Ish Elohim, an Isha Elohim, a person of God> We must see each person as an individual whose words are those of prophecy, whose voice matters, whose presence matters, whose life matters. For we are all unique. We are all different. And yet we are all the same, created form the same Adam HaRishon.

As this same mishnah on Sanhedrin 37a notes, while we are all fashioned, each human being, form the very first stamp of the very first human, not one of us resembles our fellow. We are each different. We are each unique. Therefore, we each must say that the world was created for my sake. And we must see each of us as an Ish Elohim, as an Isha Elohim. We must see each other as more than just an angel. We must see each other as a person of God, made in God’s Image.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Living Without Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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There is Nothing Sacred about Guns

V’Asu Li Mikdash, V’Shachanti B’tocham. Make for me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.

Parashat Terumah focuses on the Israelites giving a variety of gifts so that they may build the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness. But God explains that doing so allows God to dwell among them. We build buildings, but God does not reside in these buildings. Sometimes we need to build buildings to help us see the divine spark within ourselves and our communities. This reminds us that God resides within People, not a single place. That means it is within the power of the people then to act on God’s behalf. God dwells among us.

17 students and faculty were murdered on Wednesday, victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Children who are scared to go to school. Teachers are wearing Kevlar vests at work. Parents worry that every goodbye each morning may be their last. Many demographics are impacted and effected by gun violence. And there is much demand about what laws should be passed. But can we at least talk about children? Children are the most vulnerable in our society. This may not be the case with other species; birds leave the nest once they can fly. Other mammals learn to hunt for themselves as soon as they are able to walk. But about human beings, our children remain dependent on parents, caregivers, teachers, and community. Children are not expected to take care of themselves, defend themselves, and protect themselves. That is on us. That is our job.

Just as Parashat Terumah focuses on the building of the Tabernacle, the traveling sanctuary in the wilderness, the Haftarah reading for this Torah portion, taken from I Kings focuses on Solomon building the Temple in Jerusalem. In the middle of instructions and dimensions of the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple, the Haftarah clearly states:

When the House was Built, only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the House while it was being built (I Kings 6:7). 

The rabbis introduce the concept of a shamir, a worm that was able to eat away at stone. Since iron tools weren’t permitted in shaping these stones, rabbinic literature explains that Solomon used this worm to eat at the edges of these stones to make them smooth and not jagged. Mishnah Avot suggests that such a creature was so miraculous that it must’ve been created by God immediately prior to Shabbat during the week of creation.

The Talmud clarifies that the reason King Solomon used such a worm, instead of hammers and axes, was because the Temple was a place that promoted peace – a place that celebrated God’s presence – and thus, one shouldn’t use tools that promoted bloodshed, war, and violence. Because you cannot claim something is holy if it promotes violence. You cannot cling to objects and argue that they are holy when these objects that cause harm are antithetical to the teachings of our faith. But this is where we are at as a society. I thought things would change almost twenty years ago with the Columbine shooting. We all thought things would change five year ago following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. But nothing has changed. In fact, things have gotten worse. Because our society clings to their guns.

While we read of instructions to build the Tabernacle in the wilderness, it is only chapters later that the Israelites build the golden calf, read in Parashat Ki Tissa. How is it possible that only chapters after God instructs the Israelites to build a sacred space, they abandon God by worshipping idols.? After being enslaved in Egypt for 400 years, they were only accustomed to worshipping idols and it was difficult to change. It is a reminder to all of us how difficult it is, despite the verses of scripture that we may espouse, to rid ourselves of the idols among us that we worship.

We are stuck in this vicious cycle of gun violence because we live in a country that worships guns. The religion of guns is controlled by gun manufacturers, whose goal is not to protect lives, but instead to sell more guns. Rather than being guided by ethics and values of scripture taught by clergy, the religion of guns is guided by the NRA and lobbyists who fatten the pockets of elected officials, ensuring inaction continues, and this epidemic of gun violence continues as well. And those who practice the religion of guns, Avodah Zarah, Idol Worship, also forget the essence of what our faith teaches us, that something that promotes war and violence cannot be sacred.

The Haftarah clarifies that which causes harm to others cannot be sign as sacred. And as the Torah portion teaches, sacred space is not about buildings, it is about people. It’s about community. It is not about armed guards or metal detactors in our schools either. It is about changing society, and doing all that is possible to prevent harmful tools from ending up in the hands of those who will use them to cause harm. And I don’t understand the argument of “It’s not about guns. It’s about people.” To me it’s about making it harder for people who will use objects to cause harm to gain access to them. But don’t listen to me. Listen to Carly Novell, 17, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School:

“I was hiding in a closet for 2 hours. It was about guns. You weren’t there. You don’t know how it felt. Guns give these disgusting people the ability to kill other human beings. This IS about guns,” she said. “And this is about all the people who had their life abruptly ended because of guns.” 


V’Shachanti B’tocham. And I will dwell among them. God is found among the people. So it is up to the people. It is up to us, God’s partners in creation, to end our society’s obsession with worshipping idols, to change a society where the right to own a gun is more important than the right to live. It is up to us, to do better, to be better. God expects that of us. And so does our children.

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Yom Kippur Sermons

Shana Tova! I continue to be on a spiritual high for a meaningful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I hope you feel a sense of hope as well as we begin the new year.

For those who are interested, here are the sermons I shared with the Congregation Beth El community during Yom Kippur 5778. The first – delivered on Kol Nidre – deals with teh struggle of loneliness and is inspired by the musical, “Dear Evan Hansen.” The second delivered on Yom Kippur day prior to the Yizkor service, forces us to question how we will be remembered when we leave this world.

I look forward to your comments and feedback.

Kol Nidre 5778: You Will Be Found

Yom Kippur 5778: Who Will Mourn For You?

Wishing you a happy and healthy new year!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Davening During Jumu’ah

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Don’t Throw Away Your Shot, Shot

If you weren’t at synagogue over the festival of Shavuot, then you missed me rapping the lyrics of Alexander Hamilton, from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton. Hamilton has become so popular that it is impossible to get a ticket. Some of you have been lucky enough to see it on stage. The rest of us are forced to instead listen to it over and over on Spotify, watching the occasional YouTube video of a performance.

Hamilton was the sensation of the Tony’s awards this past weekend. They were nominated for a record 16 Tony’s and walked away with 11 wins. And yet, Miranda got the idea for this groundbreaking musical because at an airport bookstore. He picked up the 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow to read while on vacation. That is not a light read. But he said that as he read it, he couldn’t help but realize how the life of Hamilton embodies hip hop. Hamilton was born a penniless orphan in St. Croix, what was then called an illegitimate birth, and become George Washington’s righthand man. He became treasury secretary and “caught beef with every other founding father.”  After all, it is a remarkable story. We would think it is fiction if we didn’t read of it in our history books.

HamiltonOn Shavuot, we read of a woman whose life embodies “hip hop” just as much as Hamilton’s:  Ruth. Yes. Ruth the Moabite. My name is Ruth the Moabite. And there are a million things I haven’t done. Just you wait. Just you wait.

The rabbis offer many interpretations about why we read the book of Ruth on Shavuot.  Many identify Ruth as the first convert to Judaism. Her statement to Naomi of “Wherever you go I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people. And your God shall be my God” is identified as an affirmation of faith. Since Shavuot is when we receive the Torah, when we celebration revelation at Sinai, this affirmation of faith is an affirmation of Torah, an affirmation of revelation. Ruth is choosing to stand at the foot of Sinai. Additionally, we read about Ruth on Shavuot, because Shavuot marks the wheat harvest in the land of Israel. In the book of Ruth, Ruth who is hungry, along with her mother-in-law Naomi, is sent out to glean with the other women of Boaz’s field. So much of the book focuses on her cleaning of the wheat and barley, and this is the holiday of the wheat harvest. That is certainly appropriate.

But the book of Ruth is about something greater, something deeper. This book is Tony Award worthy.

Ruth marries into Naomi’s family, a Moabite woman marrying an outsider, only to have her father-in-law die, quickly followed by the deaths of her husband and brother-in-law. As much as her mother-in-law tries to get her to leave, she stays. She promises to remain with Naomi. They travel to Bethelem and are poor, homeless, and hungry, so she is forced to glean the fields. She comes across Boaz and She waits for him to have his fill – to eat a lot and drink a lot – and then ends up seducing him. Eventually, they marry. The end of the book though, having nothing to do with the narrative itself, is key:

There is a son to be born to Naomi, meaning born to Ruth: And they called him Oved, the father of Jesse, the father of David.

The book of Ruth ends declaring that this outsider who experienced nothing but death, who followed her mother-in-law to an unknown place, who was poor and homeless, who slept around in order to find favor and get food, is the great grandmother of David. Ruth is the great grandmother of the great King of Israel, and as tradition teaches, is responsible for the lineage of the Messiah. Essentially, despite all that she had been through, her actions will lead to messianic redemption.

The book of Ruth teaches us despite the challenges of one’s life, anything is possible. No matter the bumps one experiences in the road, you have great influence and the ability to impact and change society and the world – just as Ruth did for Jewish history and Hamilton did for American history. We are inspired by each that despite the tragedies of the past, the world will know your name.

May we find comfort and inspiration knowing that regardless of whatever challenges we face, there is still so much opportunity to change the world.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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$15 and the Half-Shekel: Lessons from the Torah on a Living Wage

Last week, at the urging of Faith in New Jersey (@FaithinNJ), a faith-based social justice organization (formerly known as PICO-NJ), I – along with other Essex County clergy – was asked to attend Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s press conference at Newark City Hall. As clergy, we stood beside Mayor Baraka and members of 32BJ SEIU as the Mayor declared his support for raising the minimum wage for Port Authority employees to $15 an hour. These employees include those who work at Newark Liberty International Airport, an airport that all in our area – and most throughout the state of Jersey – frequent for air travel. The airport is owned by the city of Newark, but leased to the Port Authority. Since the city owns the land, and the airport is the largest employer in the city of Newark – and likely the entire state – the airport, and the way its employees are treated are representative of the values of Newark and the entire state of New Jersey.

The Mayor was asked what mathematical formula he used to come up with the number $15. He smiled and responded “the formula we used was the formula of justice.” He added:

No airport worker that works full-time should have to live in poverty and be forced to make the choice between housing, food and health care. I think we need $15 immediately.

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Mayor Baraka, members of 32BJ SEIU, and Essex County clergy

When the minimum wage became a requirement of law as part of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, it was meant to be a sufficient amount so that an individual could provide for his or her family. Minimum wage was meant to be a living wage. In 1968, the minimum wage was at $1.60/hour. In 2013, that wage would be equivalent to $10.71/hour. According to the Economic Policy Institute, if wage increases had kept up with labor productivity, then the minimum wage in 2013 should have been $18.23/hour. Yet, the federal minimum wage remains $7.25/hour. The New Jersey state minimum wage is $8.38/hour. These are hardly a living wage, and hardly what was intended when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed over 75 years ago.

This past Shabbat, we read a special Torah reading as part of the special Shabbat, Shabbat Shekalim. In this Torah reading, we are told:

This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight… (Ex. 30:13)

The Torah commands that each pay a half-shekel as part of a census. Most read the text and conclude that this census was to see how many able-bodied adult males there were to fight, as the Israelites were preparing for the inevitable battles when they entered the Promised Land. However, the half-shekel had even greater significance. The half-shekel was not too much money. It was enough so that everyone could participate. It was an example of everyone being on equal footing, and having the same chance, the same equal opportunity. Obviously the half-shekel meant less to the wealthy than others. Still, it was a symbol of equal opportunity and an equal chance.

We live in a society that is not living up to the promise of this biblical society, in which all are seen as equals and all are given an equal opportunity. No one donated a half-shekel and cried poverty. All were seen as equals. So too, no one should work a forty-hour a week job and not be able to provide food on the table or a home to live in.

I proudly stood with other clergy as Mayor Baraka made his statements in support of increasing the minimum wage to $15/hour. I did so not just as a resident of Essex County. I did so as a person of faith. We must fulfill the biblical promise of this census. We must ensure that all have equal opportunity to succeed in society. That begins with the fight for $15. That begins with the promise to pay individuals a living wage.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Star Wars and Jewish Thought Have Same Take on Good Versus Evil

This article was originally published on December 18, 2015 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

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Star Wars has always been about more than just galactic war, aliens, and planet traveling. It is about the fight of good versus evil. How one uses the Force is equivalent to the rabbinic tradition’s ‘yetzer tov’ and ‘yetzer rah.’

HaaretzStarWarsPicMost sci-fi enthusiasts say the most pivotal moment in the iconic Star Wars franchise took place in The Empire Strikes Back when the evil Darth Vader reveals to the young Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker that he is in fact his father. They use this argument to support their claim that Episode V is the best film in the series.

While that may be true, the most important moment for me is the end of Return of the Jedi when Vader prevents the evil Darth Sidious, Emperor Palpatine, from killing his son Luke. At that moment, Vader abandons his commitment to the Dark Side and his status as a Sith Lord, and instead uses the Force for good. He even has his son remove his mask, killing him in the process.

Star Wars has always been about more than just galactic war, aliens, and planet traveling. It is about the fight of good versus evil. The Force within the Star Wars universe represents the talent and ability inside each of us to be good and do good. The Force is each individual’s opportunity and responsibility to stand up for good. The Light Side and the Dark Side, the result of how one uses the Force, is equivalent to the rabbinic tradition’s yetzer tov and yetzer rah, one’s good inclination and one’s evil inclination.

The yetzer rah that haunts us, and leads us down a dark path, is not what we think. We tend to look at those who do wrong as selfish, only thinking about themselves. Similarly, when we look at Anakin Skywalker embracing the Dark Side, we think that jealousy and ego led him to turn evil. Yet, there is a selflessness to that selfishness. Anakin turns to the Dark Side because Palpatine promises that doing so will give him the power to save his wife, Padmé. Midrash teaches that a similar drive pushes someone to do wrong (Genesis Rabbah 9:7). We desire safety, security, health – for ourselves, but also for others. We do not want to accept that some things are out of our control. Trying to control what we cannot control ultimately leads us down the path of wrongdoing. There is not a Sith Lord pushing us to do evil. There is only ourselves and our own desires.

One may think that we begin in a pure state and that our relationship with others and the manner in which we are influenced by society makes us impure. Rabbinic Judaism offers the opposite perspective. Rabbinic tradition teaches that one is born solely with the yetzer rah and only acquires the yetzer tov at age 13 (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 16). That is why one does not become bar mitzvah, and does not become obligated or responsible until that age. If Judaism teaches that we begin with a state of wrongdoing and only learn to do good, then the yetzer tov is not only equivalent to the Force being used for good. It is also symbolic of the hope that is present throughout the films. The first Star Wars film, Episode IV, is even called A New Hope.

That hope is what drives the Jewish people. In fact, that eternal hope is the gift of Judaism. The hope that good will defeat evil, both in this world and within ourselves, is the hope we sing about in the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah. That hope is found in the scriptural narrative of our people, the exodus experience following 400 years of slavery and servitude. That hope is prominent in Psalms, as the Psalmist promises “weeping may endure for an evening, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5).

Similarly, Star Wars embodies hope for a better future. We can easily become disheartened by reading headlines and watching the news. We see evil in the world around us and fear the dark direction that society is heading in. We hear xenophobic and bigoted statements from community leaders and politicians and fear that our society, which prides itself on freedom and democracy, is becoming the evil empire.

Yet, Star Wars is a call to action. It turned a moisture farmer on the forgotten desert planet of Tattoine into a Jedi Knight. It turned the self-centered Han Solo into a hero that cared about others and not just about himself. Yet it demands we drive that change toward a better future by ensuring the yetzer tov within each us, and within society, prevails.

May the Force be with you.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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