Tag Archives: Moses

At the Center of our Relationship with God is the Broken and Whole

We just concluded the book of Exodus and in doing so, also concluded the narrative that focused on the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites brought with them as they traveled throughout the wilderness.

At the end of this section, God reminds Moses how to set up the Tabernacle:

Place there the Ark of the Pact and screen off the ark with the curtain. Bring in the table and lay out its due setting, bring in the lampstand and light its lamps and place the gold altar of incense before the ark of the Pact. (Ex. 40:3-5)

And then Moses does exactly that.

He took the Pact and placed it in the ark, and he fixed the poles to the ark, placed the cover on top of the ark, and brough the ark inside the Tabernacle. (Ex. 40:20)

Central to the Tabernacle is not the altar where offerings and sacrifices took place, but instead the Ark of the Covenant. And what was in that ark? What was at the center of this sanctuary that was core to the Israelites relationship with God?

broken tabletsThe tablets. But not just the second set that Moses carved again. Both sets of tablets were placed inside the ark. The broken and the whole.

While the Talmud Yerushalmi teaches that two Arks journeyed with Israel in the wilderness— one in which the Torah was placed, and the other in which the Tablets broken by Moses were placed, the Babylonian Talmud offers a different interpretation. Tractate Bava Batra teaches that Rabbi Meir clarifies that something else was in the ark — the broken tablets side-by-side with the whole tablets.

At the center of the sanctuary, at the center of that in which God’s divine Presence, Kavod Shechina, finally resides, and thus at the center of where the Israelites saw God, felt God, and found God, was not just a reminder of their commitment and relationship to God, but also a reminder of their mistakes, of their imperfections, of their brokenness.

We must wrestle with God when we feel broken, just as much as when we feel whole. We find God in loss and illness, in mourning, in heartache. We find God when we do wrong, and when we are looking to rebuild our own Tabernacles. We find God when we curse and yell and cry at God, not just at times of joy and celebration, times of success and light. May we always place at the center of our sanctuaries. And at the center of our relationship with God, me we always put forth that which is whole, and that which is broken. For both are holy.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Praying to the same God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Our Liberation is Bound Up Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Committed to the Cause

Last week saw the beginning of the 116th Congress of the United States, with Republicans controlling the Senate and Democrats controlling the House, and Mitch McConnell remaining in control as the Majority Leader of the Senate and Nancy Pelosi returning to the role of Speaker of the House. Additionally, we saw a record 102 women sworn in the House and 15 in the Senate. 36 women are freshman members of Congress; 23 Freshman House members are people of color. There are also currently more than 10 out openly LGBTQ members of Congress. We saw the first Muslim women and the first Native Americans sworn into Congress as well. This Congress is without a doubt the most swearinginbooksdiverse in our country’s history. CNN shared a picture of the variety of books that members of Congress chose to place their hands on when taking the oath of office. This included the Christian Bible, the Tanakh, the Book of Mormon, the Quran, the Buddhist Sutra, the Hindu Vera, and the Constitution itself. Locally, new members of Congress are veterans, former employees of the state department, and worked in previous presidential administrations.

I was mesmerized by the social media posts of these newest members of Congress, documenting the beginning of their tenure as elected officials, promising to represent, We the People. No matter our views on their positions or promises, their documenting this experience is truly incredible:

Or newly sworn-in Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer for Iowa’s First Congressional District:

Or Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who tweeted:

Or Congressman Brian Mast, a military veteran who congratulated two new freshman members of Congress who are also military veterans with the tweet:

To see these individuals enter a leadership role is a reminder of the power that each of us has to become leaders. Parashat Va’era focuses on the first seven of the ten plagues that fall upon the people of Egypt. Prior to those ten plagues though, the Torah recounts the genealogy of Aaron and Moses, linking them all the way back to Jacob’s children, and in doing so, linking the leaders of this exodus narrative to our biblical patriarchs and matriarchs that made up much of the Genesis narrative. Exodus 6:20 notes Amram took to wife his father’s sister Yocheved and she bore him Aaron and Moses. The Torah then says something a bit odd:

This is the same Aaron and Moses to whom God said, ‘Bring forth the Israelites from the land of Egypt, tribe by tribe. It was they who spoke to Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to free the Israelites from the Egyptians; these are the same Moses and Aaron (Ex. 6:26-27).

Most biblical commentators wonder why the Torah awkwardly states that “these are the same Moses and Aaron.” Rashi explains that the reason it is repeated and stipulated that these are the same Moses and Aaron is because the Torah is clarifying that they remain committed to their cause. Quoting Tractate Megillah of the Babylonian Talmud, Rashi writes: They remained in their mission and in their righteousness, from beginning until the end.

It is common for leaders to change, to become different people than they were when they rose to leadership. Most elected officials end up disappointing us, because they change their views, because they don’t live up to campaign promises – many of which were unattainable to begin with, because they might cozy up to lobbyist and special interests, or because they are more concerned with reelection than they are with governing or passing legislation.

So let us pray that the members of the 116th Congress live up to the values found in the books that they placed their hands on as they were sworn into office. Let us pray that they live up to the ideals of the Constitution that they promised to protect. And let us pray that they, like Moses and Aaron, remain the same people they were before the titles “Representative” or “Senator” were place in front of their names. May they still be driven by the same mission; may they live a life full of the same righteousness. And may they be guided by the same principles. May they not become burnt out, or corrupted, or influenced, or bigheaded. Instead, may they be who they were meant to be. These are the same people as they were before, the Torah tells us. May they lead. And may our nation be better off as a result.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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We cannot be Free, until we are all Free

Every year, at our Passover Seders, a ritual meal when we celebrate the Israelite journey from slavery to freedom and our own freedom today, we begin the Maggid portion of our Seders by declaring that “this year we are still slaves. Next year, may we be free.” As a child, I thought this declaration made the Seder an absurd experience. We are either free or not. We cannot celebrate freedom from oppression and still declare that we are not yet free. It was only as an adult that I came to truly understand the power of this text, for this declaration defines the Passover experience. We cannot be free until all celebrate freedom from injustice and oppression. We celebrate the Israelite journey to freedom not as a historical event, but rather as a call to action, a reminder that freedom must not stop with us. 

As Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: 

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 

All of humanity, all of God’s creations are connected. We do not – and cannot – only care about that which impacts us. We must stand up against all discrimination and injustice. Most importantly, we cannot let our success cause the suffering of another. And we must demand that justice for all.

Dr. King also wrote:

 “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.” 

That means knocking at Pharaoh’s door again and again, just as Moses did. That means continuing to declare “let my people go,” in spite of hardened hearts. And that means that each and every time we bang on Pharaoh’s door, it gets louder and louder, for at first just Moses approached Pharaoh, but with each showdown, the number of individuals that accompanied Moses increased and increased. For the power of the people is ultimately always greater than the people in power. Still, Moses understood that the Israelites’ fight for freedom couldn’t come at the expense of others. Rashi explains That the first plague of dam, blood, represented the life force of Egypt. The land was watered by the flooding of the Nile, so it was worshiped by Egyptians. Turning it to blood was not just a blow to their water resources, but to that which they considered to be divine. But Moses was uncomfortable with this reality as well. 

There is a midrash in Shemot Rabbah that teaches us that Moses was uncomfortable with God’s command to smite the river because the act represented pain and suffering. And Moses reminded God that the Nile saved him, as a baby in the basket, the basket did not submerge under the water. Instead the waters protected him. He couldn’t imagine striking that very water. I believe this midrash has an even deeper meaning. Moses is finding the possibility of harming Egyptians for the sake of Israelites’ freedom difficult to accept. Moses is asking: must we bring harm to the innocent bystander? Must we hurt those who were also scared of Pharaoh’s wrath? These are not Pharaoh’s taskmasters or courtiers. These are citizens who were scared silent. Why must they suffer? In fact, by Moses asking this, he is representing God’s own struggle. 

After all, the Torah reminds us:

“See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh” (Ex. 7:1).

God tells Moses to see yourself as a representative of God to Pharaoh. As Moses struggles with harming those who are innocent bystanders, he acknowledges that this isn’t something that God wants either. In fact, Mesechet Megillah tells of when the Israelites crossed the split sea into freedom and says that God’s angels were celebrating. God chastises the angels as the Egyptians are drowning in the sea:

“God, said to them: ‘My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?'”

It is clear that God is equally uncomfortable with the suffering of others. As God and Moses teach us through midrash, we cannot celebrate when others are harmed. We cannot celebrate when our freedom is caused by another’s pain and suffering. The freedom of one cannot be caused by the suffering of another. This is our struggle. The Torah also tells us that when the Israelites left Egypt, they did not leave alone:

“And a mixed multitude went up with them” (Ex. 12:38). 

The Torah reveals that the reason so many left Egypt was because an erev rav, a mixed multitude of individuals, joined with the Israelites. Egyptians who dealt with their own hardships and pain and suffering also set out to leave Egypt and were also freed from Pharaoh’s rule. In the end, it was not just the Israelites who were freed. It was all who suffered from injustice. 

Moses and God agonized over the pain and suffering that others felt because they understood that one cannot be free unless we are all free. One cannot suffer while the other succeeds. That is not true freedom. That is not true justice. May we learn from God’s and Moses’ hesitation. Let Martin Luther King’s legacy snap us out of complacency. As Rev. William Barber reminds us: 

“In recent years, NGOs and government officials have sanitized Dr. King’s legacy, turning his birthday into a call for service. Meanwhile, politicians of all stripes stand up at podiums to honor Dr. King, but then pass vulgar policies that threaten the very soul of our nation.”

We cannot claim to fight for justice and encourage — or at the very least ignore — racist policies. We cannot only fight for the freedom of some. For as long as injustice continues, we are still slaves. Next year, may we be free. Next year, may Dr. King’s dream finally be realized. And may we stand up to the Pharaoh’s among us until it is. 

– 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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Standing Up to Hardened Hearts

This article was originally published on January 30th, 2017, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

I spent last Sunday with the new Syrian family that our community helped resettle in New Jersey. Along with my rabbinic colleagues, we spent time with the family that Congregation Beth El, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, and Oheb Shalom Congregation helped to resettle. The family has asked that we do not use their names out of fear of retribution to family members still in Syria. During our conversation together, it was clear how grateful they were to be here, and how much emotional baggage they carried with them. They came with just a few suitcases. Our community graciously and lovingly donated clothing, houseware, and furniture to furnish their new home that we found for them. But all they brought with them, all they had left of their lives, was a few suitcases. Their children are beginning school in the local elementary and high school in the coming days and their oldest child is committed to being fluent in English as quickly as possible so that she could enroll in a university soon.

They arrived at Newark International Airport days before President Trump’s inauguration, and days later, I can’t help but think how lucky they are that they arrived when they did. If they were delayed and arrived any later, they wouldn’t have been allowed in this country, a consequence of the President’s discriminatory executive order that temporarily bans citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, temporarily freezes the US refugee program entirely, and bans all Syrian refugees from entering the United States going forward.

As a rabbi, a Jew, and a human being, this xenophobic policy is deeply troubling to me. In June 1939 the St. Louis was turned away and not allowed to anchor in the United States, out of fear that the German Jews on board were actually Nazi spies.More than a quarter of those passengers died in the Holocaust. Statistics from 1938 show that the vast majority of Americans weren’t willing to allow German or Austrian refugees into the country. On January 27th, we observed International Holocaust Remembrance Day and made the commitment of ‘Never Again.’ The promise of ‘Never Again’ means that never again will be turn away refugees, sending them off to be slaughtered. Never again will we be apathetic towards millions who are just seeking safety under God’s sheltering presence. And yet, we find ourselves at this crossroads, where the government has seemed to ignore this commitment of ‘Never Again,’ specifically singling out refugees because of their ethnicity and faith.

My congregation joined the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees a year and a half ago and joined HIAS’ list of Welcoming Congregations this past spring. We, along with the other synagogues in the area, joined withChurch World Service to resettle refugees because we were determined to not just talk the talk – to not just sign on to a statement or add our names to a petition – but to walk the walk. And now in light of this discriminatory executive action, we are left asking ourselves: What do we do now? Where do we go from here? Who do we want to be?

mattgewirtzjesseolitzky

Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz & Rabbi Jesse Olitzky at Newark International Airport

On Saturday night, I joined hundreds at Newark International Airport, among them congregants and rabbinic colleagues, to protest these discriminatory executive orders and demand that refugees and immigrants be allowed to enter this country. I cannot be silent. I refuse to be silent. We must continue to take action, even when we feel hopeless – and especially when we feel hopeless – to fight for what we believe is right.

 

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Va’era, a continuation of the exodus narrative, in which God commands Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand that the Israelites be freed. God begins with a promise, looking into the future, focusing on the destination of the journey ahead:

I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you for the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm… (Ex. 6:5-6).

This initial promise sounds pretty good. Those who have suffered will be given a new opportunity to begin again. Yet, as God explains to Moses that he will be the leader of the Israelites, and his brother Aaron will be his voice, the Lord threw a wrench into this supposed promise:

You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. (Ex. 7:2-3).

This always baffled me. Why would an Omnipotent God intentionally harden Pharaoh’s heart? Why wouldn’t God just free the Israelites at that moment? One would think that after finally hearing their cries of four hundred years of servitude, God would immediately take them out of slavery. The rabbis are equally concerned with this and try to rationalize Pharaoh’s hardened heart.

Midrash Lekach Tov blames the Israelites, suggesting that after being enslaved for so long, they weren’t ready to be free. They needed to witness God’s miracles to understand that freedom was actually a possibility for them. Rashi teaches that at that moment, if Pharaoh was to repent, it would be inauthentic. He couldn’t have experienced wholehearted teshuvah, so his heart was hardened. The midrash in Exodus Rabbah suggests that Pharaoh needed to be punished for his actions. Pharaoh needed to suffer from these plagues as a revenge of sorts. But none of this explains why God preemptively warns Moses that Pharaoh’s heart would be hardened. Why does God reveal the plot twist before it even happens? Because ultimately, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was not about Pharaoh; it was about Moses.

Moses may have been a hesitant leader due to his fear of speaking in public, his “uncircumcised lips,” but his belief in helping the Israelites was never in doubt. He risked his life of privilege in Pharaoh’s palace to prevent a taskmaster from beating a slave! This was a cause that he cared about from an early age. But what would happen when he got to that first road block? What would happen when the door was slammed in his face? Would he return to Midian as a shepherd and ignore the hardships of the Hebrews? Or would he continue to bang on Pharaoh’s door, until he banged the door down, demanding ‘Let My People Go’?

God wanted to make sure that Moses was in this for the long haul, because if he cared enough about this cause, then he needed to be in it for the long haul. It would’ve been easy to get frustrated, pack up, and go home. The path to justice isn’t straight, but that doesn’t mean that we stop pursuing it. Moses knew that time and time again he would demand the Israelites’ freedom and would be turned away, but he kept coming back. He refused to give up. He knew what he stood for was right and wasn’t going to let the hardened heart of an authoritarian get in his way.

So now, at this point in history, we ask ourselves where do we go from here? Who do we want to be? We are the descendants of refugees who came to this country seeking safe haven. Many of us are refugees ourselves. We are a people who are taught to welcome the stranger, a commandment found in the Torah more times than any other commandment. So who do we want to be? After signing on to statements and petitions and even resettling refugees, do we move on in the face of bigoted policies? Do we continue to complain to our friends in our own echo chambers, posting on social media to those who already share our views? Do we give up and return to Midian, defeated with our heads hanging in shame? Or do we do what Moses did, keep banging on Pharaoh’s door, fighting for what is right?

Who do we want to be?

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Yom Kippur Sermons 5776

For those who missed them, want to read them again, or are interested, here are my Yom Kippur sermons, delivered at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, NJ:

Kol Nidre: Letting Go of Guilt

Yom Kippur Morning: Carrying our Loved Ones – and their Memories – with us

Please feel free to share your feedback, thoughts, and comments.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Blessing to Lead by Example

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Power of Words

This past Shabbat, we began reading the book of Deuteronomy, Sefer Devarim. Parashat Devarim, the first Torah portion of the final book of the Torah, begins with the following statement:

Eleh Devarim Asher Diber Moshe El Kol Yisrael

These are the Words that Moses spoke to all of Israel.

This Torah portion begins Moses’ final speech to the people of Israel. The entire book of Deuteronomy is essentially a recounting of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness and Moses’ role and relationship during that journey. However, we must still ask ourselves, how is it possible that Moses shared these words with all of Israel? The text does not say with the Children of Israel or the People of Israel. It specifically notes that Moses’ spoke these words to every single individual associated with the people of Israel.

This would be an unattainable task by any individual, speaking to hundreds of thousands, but considering Moses’ old age and frail state, as well as his speech impediment and fear of public speaking, the possibility of him sharing his words with all of Israel is rather far-fetched. So then, how is it possible that Moses’ words reached all of the People of Israel? The answer to that question lies in the power of words.

mouthspeakingWe often think that when we speak to someone, our words only impact that individual, but our words have a far greater ripple effect. When we speak, and share our words with the world, they are ultimately felt by the entire world. Our words are passed on, from conversation to conversation, from individual to individual. Like a game of telephone, our words have an impact. Moses may have only been speaking to a select few, but they shared his words with others who in turn, shared his words as well. Moses spoke these words to all of Israel because ultimately, his words impacted all of Israel.

The same can be said about our words. Do we ever stop to think about the power of our own words? Do we realize how many people are impacted by our words? When we speak, are we speaking words of love or words of hate? Are our words promoting a world of peace where we embrace the other or a world that further divides us? When we share our words, we do not realize the impact of those words. We do not realize how many will hear our words.

As we conclude the mournful day of Tisha B’Av, let us take into account the lessons of this fast day. Rabbinic tradition (Bab. Tal. Mes. Yoma 9b) teaches that sinat chinam, that senseless hatred, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and subsequently, the holy city as well. Senseless hatred is speaking ill will about another. Senseless hatred is preaching words of hatred and bigotry, words of misogyny, homophobia, racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism. Senseless hatred is forget that Divine spark within each individual, refusing to recognize that we are each made in God’s image. Senseless hatred is using our words to curse this world instead of blessing this world.

Our words have great power. Let us keep in mind the power of our words and use our words to teach love. Let us ensure that our words are not catalysts for senseless hatred. Instead, let our words create sparks of unconditional love.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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