Tag Archives: Love

The Journey Continues…

This article was originally published on November 13th, 2016, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

Over the past several days, I have felt sadness, anger, and disbelief. I feel lucky to live in a town, and be part of a synagogue, with such shared values. In democracy there is always a winner or a loser. My concern was not eliminating that – that division exists in a two party system. But, we have much work to do to repair a country that is so divided and so broken.

What was hard for me, and continues to be hard for me, is the tone and rhetoric. That is why I stood up time and time again condemning such hate speech. And now a candidate who, yes, ran on change, jobs, and the economy — but also on misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and bigotry — won. A candidate won who seemed to bully all the other candidates during the primaries and general election: calling them names, yelling at them, interrupting them.

It was hardest to share this information with my children – they are still so young. My daughter was so excited to come into the voting booth with us – about the historic nature of this election. I was upset to share the results. We teach our children certain values, at home, in school, at synagogue and in our sacred spaces: about how to treat other people, those like you and those who are different than you, about loving your neighbor instead of hating the other, about respect. And it seems with the results of this election, I fear that electing a candidate whose campaign seemed to reflect the opposite of those values we teach our children condones hate.

I fear for so many – and I fear also as a Jew – what it means when a candidate who was endorsed by the KKK is elected President. There is real fear for many of us that the hateful rhetoric of this campaign will lead to hateful acts. This week, we also observed the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” a pogrom when Nazis torched synagogues and Jewish homes, businesses, and schools, killing over a hundred people. Kristallnacht was a turning point, when hate speech led to hateful acts.

I was also reminded this week of the profound words of George Washington, found in a 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, home of the country’s oldest Jewish house of worship. In it, he pledged that the “government of the United States…gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” I acknowledge my privilege as a white, straight, man and I promise to do my part, as an American, and as a human being, to ensure George Washington’s words ring true – that our government does not sanction bigotry or persecution.

So when I spoke to my children, I reminded them that this election does not change what we believe and the way we act. We must continue to be kind. We must continue to stand up for what is right, and stand up for others. A single election does not change the values we stand for. That is what our text and our tradition teach us. We read at the beginning of Genesis 12 that Abram goes on a journey to “a land that I will show you” – traditionally understood as not knowing where he is going to end up. But Abram’s journey was not a journey into the unknown. It was a journey in which they knew exactly where they were going, because the text tells us that Abram’s father, Terach, also set out on this exact journey. We read in Genesis 11:31:

Terach took his son Abram, his grandson Lot… and his daughter-in-law Sarai… and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there.

So we learn really that Abram was recommitted to continuing the journey his father was already on. Terach set out on his journey, but stopped and settled and never continued. Maybe he was tired; maybe he despaired; maybe he gave up; maybe he was content with simply getting this far.

The disappointment some feel following this election is not just because a candidate won and a candidate lost. It is a fear – fear that the progress this country has made, great progress forward toward justice and equal rights – progress that I believe our tradition celebrates, as well – will stop.

So for those disappointed, I say that the journey continues just as Abram continued Terach’s journey. We will continue on this journey determined to reach a destination of justice and equality. We will come together as a community, as a diverse people, and we will continue the American journey.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Being Held to a Higher Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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…And this is the Law

Zot Chukat HaTorah. This is the law of the Torah. These insignificant words mean little in the continuing narrative of our Torah. In fact, these initial words from last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Chukat, introduce the ritual laws of the red heifer, laws that we struggle to understand, laws that we certainly no longer practice.

Yet, as we reflect on the historic events of this past week, we also come to understand the power and significance that the words Zot Chukat HaTorah, this is the law of the Torah, have. We learn in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Sages, the teaching of Ben Bag-Bag:

Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.

Ben Bag-Bag taught that every time we read from the Torah, it offers insight into our lives, and the monumental moments in history shed light on our understanding of Torah. In witnessing this historic decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, a decision that legally guarantees marriage equality in all fifty states, we witnessed the power of law as well as the power of the evolution of law and legal interpretation. We should be blessed that we live at a time and in a society in which the highest court in the land interprets our constitution to understand that all of humanity, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, has the right to marry. I am proud to be rabbi of a community in which we can also celebrate such a decision, in which we can declare that Zot Chukat HaTorah, that such a decision is also the law of the Torah. We celebrate the kedusha, the sacred nature of this ruling.

SCOTUS Marriage EqualityAs we celebrate such a historic decision, we cannot forget the many steps that led to such a historic decision. Beginning with the initial Stonewall riots in the summer of 1969 that launched the modern fight for LGBTQ rights in this country, continuing to the SCOTUS decision of Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 which ensured that same-sex sexual activity was not an illegal act, to the groundbreaking passage of marriage equality in Massachusetts in 2004, to the rapid pace of state after state allowing marriage equality in recent years and the SCOTUS decision defeating the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013, each step led to this historic decision.

Every action causes a reaction. Every event causes another resulting event. We read in Parashat Chukat about Moses’ actions which led to him not being permitted to enter the Promised Land. Yet, we ignore the steps that took place that ultimately led to this turning point in our narrative. The Israelites are thirsty. Moses strikes a rock to give them water. Miriam provides a well for them. Miriam dies. The well dries up. The people are thirsty again and complain to Moses. Moses again strikes a rock, but ignores God’s command to speak to the rock instead. As a result, the Torah tells us that Moses and Aaron will not enter the land of Israel. This wasn’t just about the striking of a rock. This was about every step along the way, every moment in the Israelites’ journey, that led to this turning point.

So too, as we celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision on Friday June 26th, we must also pause to celebrate, honor, and remember, the many steps that were taken, the many events in our history, and the many leaders who dedicated their lives to fighting for equality, that led to this moment. We also know that we have a long way to go for true equality. We know that even though marriage equality is legal in all fifty states, in many states individuals can still be fired from their jobs or evicted from their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The fight for true equality is far from over.

Still, we need to pause and celebrate the many steps that have led to this moment, that allow us to celebrate marriage equality and say that Zot Chukat HaTorah, that this legal decision which emphasizes that each individual is equal, and made in God’s image, is also the law of our Torah.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Pride Is…

Last week, my congregation participated in the annual North Jersey Pride week, hosting a “Progress in the Pulpit” conversation on Monday night, speaking about Pride and equality on Shabbat from the bimah, celebrating with a Pride ice cream social on Shabbat afternoon, and being present at last Sunday’s Pride Festival. Pride week, and Pride month, is observed in June because of the Stonewall riots that took place in late June of 1969, which was arguably the turning point event leading up to the modern fight for LGBT rights.

PrideFest1Last Shabbat, during Pride week, we read Parashat Shelach Lecha, and read the narrative of the twelve scouts being sent to the Promised Land to scout the land and the nations that inhabit the land. This narrative though is about more than scouting the land. This story is really a story of how we see ourselves and not a story about how we are seen by others.

In Numbers 13:33, ten scouts report back:

We saw Giants there and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.

More than anything else, this is a statement about self-esteem and self-confidence. Who we are as a people and who we are as a community is determined by how we make people feel. We fail if there are those in our community that have low self-esteem, doubt who they are, who they love, and how they identify because of statements we make.

PrideFest2According to the Trevor Project, while suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens and young adults, LGBT teens are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. Yet, as Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, explains, if they are shown that they are loved and excepted by their teachers, families, and faith communities, then the statistics even out.

So Pride is to be like Joshua and Caleb. We do not just condone; we celebrate each individual. We must teach each
individual to be like Joshua and Caleb, to believe that they are good enough, brave enough, and strong enough, to be themselves. Anything else is unacceptable.  That is what Pride is.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Acting for Justice, Searching for Holiness

This past Shabbat, we read the well-known verse and command in Parashat Kedoshim: Kedoshim Tehiyu: You Shall be holy. Yet, we are left looking around society and can’t seem to find that holiness anywhere. Over the past several weeks, following the death of twenty-five year old Freddie Gray while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department, protests erupted throughout Charm City. Peaceful actions were hijacked by outside agitators, many actions turning into violent riots.

freddiegrayprotestsWe did not find holiness in the death of such a young man, a death which has since causedMaryland State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby to charge six officers in his death. We did not find holiness in violent riots that have caused city-wide curfews (that have since been lifted) and brought fear and concern to many Baltimore residents. But we also don’t find holiness in those stand in protest with residents of Baltimore, while still ignore that so many are stuck in a cycle of multi-generational povery, inequality, and systemic racism. We find holiness in taking action, but we must do more than act.

We must do more than be concerned about our neighbors. We must do more than care about our neighbors. We must do more than act for the sake of justice; we must act for the sake of love.

How do we ultimately become holy? By fulfilling the commandment in this Torah portion, found in Leviticus 19:18:

Love your neighbor as yourself.

The term ‘neighbor’ connotes that this is our neighborhood. The actions towards others ultimately impact us as well. Their home is our home. Their unrest is our unrest. So many Baltimore rabbis and members of the Jewish community acted in solidarity with the Baltimore community, searching for justice for Freddie Gray, but also taking a stand against a system that makes life so challenging for so many of the city’s residents. They rallied not out of obligation, but rather, out of love.

They understood that our neighbors are bleeding, just as our neighbors bled in New York, Ferguson, Cleveland, and Florida. They are bleeding and continue to bleed in Newark, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Our job is to stop the bleeding. And that begins with love. It is only through love, that we can truly understand the hardships of our neighbors. It is only through love that we can acknowledge our own privilege. It is only through love that we can truly be holy. So let us love more. In doing so, let our entire communities, all of our neighborhoods, act and evolve through sanctity and holiness.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Be Like Esau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Letting Go of the Hate

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

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

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

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

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

Yet our Torah portion ends with Moses saying the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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