Tag Archives: Moses

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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The Pope and the Rabbi

Every year, at the conclusion of the calendar year, Time Magazine comes out with their Person of the Year cover. The cover story focuses on the most influential individual in the news over the past twelve months. During the last fifteen years, Time Magazine Person of the Year award winners have included US Presidents Obama and Bush, world leaders like Vladimir Putin, and social innovators like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. The list of nominees of this past year’s Person of the Year cover story included Edward Snowden, who announced to the world that the NSA spies on us, Edith Windsor, whose case before the Supreme Court led to the end of the Defense of Marriage Act and a recognition by the high court of the rights of same-sex married couples, Bashar Assad, the tyrant who has murdered tens of thousands of those who challenge his authority in Syria, and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who pushed for the government shut down last fall. All of these nominees are worthy of the cover, but who ended up on the Time Magazine cover? Pope Francis.

According to Time Magazine, Pope Francis was the most influential newsmaker over the last 12 months. As noted in the magazine’s article, instead of worrying about sexual ethics or fighting over lines of authority, the Pope has elevated the healing mission of the Catholic Church, using the church as a comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world. Pope Francis’ predecessors were professors of theology, but Pope Francis is the pope of the people, serving as a janitor, nightclub bouncer, chemical technician, and school teacher before becoming a man of the cloth.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Yitro, the Torah portion in which the Israelites receive the Ten Commandments. While we may tend to focus on the legalistic core of the Torah portion, we refer to as Yitro, meaning Jethro, the high priest of Midyan, the chief cleric of the Midianites. In fact, the Torah portion begins with Yitro’s embrace of Moshe, the leader of the Israelites, making Yitro’s impact all the more noteworthy. Moses, reunites with his family after leading the Israelites out of Egypt and into the wilderness, into freedom. His wife Tzipporah and their two sons, stayed behind as he journeyed back into Egypt in order to lead the Israelites out of slavery. Following the miracles, and the splitting of the sea, following the singing and dancing and praising God with timbrel in hand, Moses is reunited with his family. Yet, before Moses even reunites with his wife and kids, he runs right past them and greets his father in law.

But this singular embrace was not a son-in-law hugging his father-in-law. Rather, it was two religious leaders embracing each other. This was an embrace of the leader of the Israelites embracing Yitro, Kohen Midyan, the High Priest of Midian. They went into the tent and shared stories of faith and of God’s glory. Jethro’s impact continues as he instructs Moses to set up a court system, ensuring justice in the process, making sure everyone’s voices are heard.

Every year, during Martin Luther King weekend, we in the Jewish community are reminded ofDR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.; DR. RALPH BUNCHE;  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel;  Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth the powerful impact of interfaith dialogue and building relationships, based on a shared commitment between faith-based communities and faith leaders. The image of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., may both of their memories be for a blessing, marching arm-in-arm is engrained in our communal memories. It’s a reminder of the importance of our shared paths as humanity, regardless of our faith and beliefs. It is a reminder that we need to come together, despite our differences, to learn about those differences. Doing so, allows us to grow as individuals. To know the other is to truly know one’s self. Heschel understood King’s tasks as his own, based on a shared ideology, theology, and scripture.

On Florida’s First Coast, Martin Luther King Jr. was barred from entering Jacksonville and instead went south to speak in St. Augustine. Upon his arrest for speaking at the Monson motel, King reached out to his rabbinic colleagues for help. Rabbis gathered and united in support of King, and their shared mission towards justice. The end result: the largest mass arrest of rabbis in US history. A more important result: faith-based leaders coming together for the sake of one another.

Many suggest that religion is the root of all evil, that religion and differences in religious beliefs, are what causes violence and war. The reality is that ignorance is the root of all evil. Ignorance, a misunderstanding of another’s beliefs, or a refusal to acknowledge that there are those that believe differently from us, is the root of all evil.

Coming together though, learning from one another and embracing each other – and our differences – is the key to peace. After all, the Psalmist challenges us: Hineh Mah Tov Umah Nayim, Shevet Achim Gam Yachad. How wonderful would it be if we all were willing to see each other as brothers and sisters, as one, despite our differences in belief, in practice, in ritual.

Moses understood thisthis when he embraced Yitro, the High Priest of Midian, before embracing anyone else. He knew this because he was a Hebrew living among Egyptians, growing up in Egyptian culture, living in the Egyptian Pharaoh’s palace. His Judaism was strengthened by learning from those around him who are different.

Pope Francis and Rabbi SkorkaLike the relationship between Yitro and Moshe, the Time Magazine cover means great things for  understanding and embracing the other. Never before has a Pope had such a positive and personal relationship with representatives of other faiths, especially those in the Jewish community. Long before he was Pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio served as Cardinal and Archbishop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, going out of his way to pastor to the most needy. Rabbi Abraham Skorka serves the Jewish community of Buenos Aires and actually serves as rector of Seminario Rabbinico Latinoamericano, the Latin American Rabbinical School affiliated with the Conservative Movement and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Apparently, their friendship began with Bergoglio ribbed the Rabbi about their rival soccer teams.

But their friendships grew. They began meeting and having regular inter-religious dialogue, that culminated in the book On Heaven and Earth, a conversation about their views. Their friendship is so strong that Rabbi Skorka actually has spent evenings in the Vatican visiting the Pope, and the Pope has hosted him and his family for Shabbat dinner, kashering the kitchen in the Vatican to accommodate him. They plan on visiting Israel together later this year.

Such a public expression of their friendship is more than a statement about their friendship. It is setting an example, for Catholics, for Jews, and for all people of faith to embrace each other and learn from each other, for the betterment of society and the world. A rabbi having Shabbos dinner at the Vatican is the equivalent of Exodus 18:7:

Vayetzeh Moshe Likrat Chotno va’yishtachu va’yishak lo

It’s the equivalent to Moses running out to greet Jethro, bowing before him and kissing him; a public display of acceptance, of appreciation, of friendship.

Jacksonville is set comfortably in the Bible Belt, in a community where there are more churches than gas stations. We are a part of a cohesive and warm Jewish community, yet I fear that sometimes, we do not reach out to “the other” and thus, the other doesn’t reach out to us in return. We have an opportunity in the Jewish community in Jacksonville, and in all faith-based communities, to embrace the other, to be like Moshe and Yitro. We have an opportunity to work together, based on our shared beliefs, faith, and values. We have an opportunity to learn together, grow together, and work together to create a more just society. That is what Moshe and Yitro did creating a judicial system. That is what Heschel and King did, marching together and fighting for the Civil Rights for all. That is what Rabbi Skorka and Pope Francis do, learning, conversing, and breaking bread together. That is what we must do. So let us seek out those Midianite Priests around us and welcome them into our tents. May we emulate Moses and Jethro’s shared knowledge, mutual respect, and friendship. And may we be better people as a result.

 – Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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