Tag Archives: Peace

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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We Must Be Prophets

On Tuesday June 2nd of this past week, I intentionally wore orange. While orange is my favorite color, I donned such a hue with a specific purpose. I wore orange as part of the first annual National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Such a day of awareness was brought to the national level with the help of Everytown for Gun Safety, but it was not the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT or at the Movie Theater in Aurora, CO that sparked this day of awareness. It was not the systemic racist shootings of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, or Michael Brown that launched such a day of awareness.

wear-orange-gun-violence-awareness-dayRather, the day was started by the friends of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old who was mistakenly shot by gang members in a Chicago Park in 2013. An honors student who only days earlier had performed in Washington DC at President Obama’s second inauguration, Pendleton and her friends were taking cover in a Chicago park during a rain storm when two men thought the group gathering together was a rival gang and began shooting. Her friends launched Project Orange Tree, asking people to wear orange on Tuesday because it would’ve been Hadiya’s 18th birthday. Everytown for Gun Safety brought such a day of awareness to the national level and elected officials and legislators, actors and actresses, athletes, and so many others, tweeted out just as I did, that they were wearing orange to raise awareness.

As my colleague and teacher Rabbi Aryeh Cohen pointed out, I’d rather than elected officials symbolically wearing orange, we need them to pass legislation to truly make this world a safer place. And so, a day after I attempted to raise awareness through pictures, tweets, and hashtags, I woke up and got dressed, this time putting on a white dress shirt instead of orange. That day, I followed the news closely as Maplewood Middle School was on a Code Red lockdown because a seventh grader brought a loaded 9mm Glock handgun to school at lunchtime.

A day later, I again got dressed, but instead of orange, I put on a blue dress shirt and followed the news closely that Columbia High School was on a Code Yellow lockdown because a student brought an air soft gun to school.

Thank God, no one was hurt. And yet, as the scare of gun violence and the realities of the world that we live in hit much closer to home, we must realize that raising awareness, wearing orange, only does so much and only takes us so far.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat B’haalotecha. In the Torah portion, we are introduced to Eldad and Medad, who remain in the camp and as God’s spirit rests upon them — v’tanach alehem heRuach — they acted as prophets. Yet, when Joshua hears of this, he is outraged. Next in line to take over as leader and serve as the mouthpiece for God, Joshua complains to Moses, but Moses responds in Numbers 11:29:

But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all of God’s people were prophets and that God would put God’s Spirit on them!”

Moses’ hope is my hope: we must all see ourselves as God’s prophets, and thus, walk in God’s ways, striving to create a safer and more peaceful world, reflective of the world that God set out to create. As prophets, we all have a responsibility to build a safe community, to speak out and stand up, and assure that our children are safe. Just as v’tanach alehem haRuach, as God’s spirit rested upon Eldad and Medad, I pray that v’tanach aleinu haRuach, that God’s spirit will rest upon us as well. We must be prophets so that our children will not have to live in a world where they need to walk through metal detectors in order to take a math test or carry their books home from school in a bulletproof backpack. We must be prophets so that firearms and bullets aren’t sold at the same store that sells food, clothing, and video games.

Some of us may disagree on the solution, but we can all agree on the problem: more than 30,000 people killed every year in United States because of Gun Violence. May we join together, advocate together, and pray together, to ultimately force change together. May God’s spirit rest upon everyone. And may we one day see a day when we are all safe.

– 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 Promise of Peace in the Promised Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam Oseh Maaseh Breisheit. 

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

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

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Letting Martin Luther King’s Legacy Snap us out of Complacency

This article was originally published on January 19, 2015 on the American observance of Martin Luther King Day, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

Haaretz

Why the Jewish community must be reawakened to praying with our feet, and recommit to participating in the ongoing struggle for civil rights. 

Martin Luther King Day recognizes the life, legacy, and work of the fallen leader of the civil rights movement, but it is hardly a celebration. In 1994, President Clinton signed federal legislation into law, turning this day into a National Martin Luther King Day of Service. This initiative invites Americans to get inspired by the ideals, ethics and values that Dr. King embodied and volunteer their time to help others, making this world just a little bit better.

However, we are selling King’s legacy short if we settle for a once-a-year volunteer opportunity or a community service project as a way to honor him. King was not just about helping those in need. He was about creating lasting change, inspiring legislative reform, through peaceful protest and non-violent action.

Such action is highlighted in the film “Selma,” which tells the story of King leading a peaceful march for voting rights from Selma, Alabama, to the statehouse in Montgomery. Hanging on the wall in my office is a picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, marching arm-in-arm with King during that march. Heschel reflected about his experience that day with a now well-known phrase: “I felt my feet were praying.” I look at this picture every day as I sit at my desk. It is a reminder of the Jewish imperative to work toward justice. But it also serves as a reminder that we all too often become complacent.

MLK DayKing famously said that “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at time of challenge and controversy.” The deaths of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, at the hands of white police officers, and the subsequent grand jury decisions not to indict these officers, serve as chilling reminders that systemic racism is still a scary reality. Those of us who live a life of privilege can’t take our advantages for granted or allow them to lull us into complacency. We need to get off of our metaphorical butts. We cannot ignore the injustice that our brothers and sisters deal with every day. We need to draw inspiration from King, and Heschel, and learn again to pray with our feet.

Rabbi Hillel taught in Pirkei Avot 2:6 that in a place where there are no good and righteous people, we must strive to be those righteous individuals. All the more so, when so many others are silent and apathetic, we must strive to be righteous and act toward justice. We are commanded in Deuteronomy 16:20, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” The Torah acknowledges that while justice is an ideal, it does not come easily. We are not commanded to sit around and wait for justice to happen. We are not commanded to talk about justice and expect society will be different. We are commanded to pursue justice, to chase after it.

Let us not settle for a day of remembrance. Let us not settle for a day of community service. Let our observance of Martin Luther King Day be a day filled with dialogue, spirited debate and ultimately, action. Let King’s peaceful protests remind us that we have the ability to bring about change. Let King’s words be a call to action, decades after he said them. As Jews, let us not stand idly by. As we celebrate the life King, may we also remember to live the principles of the Torah, and not just study them. In doing so, may we stand alongside those who suffer injustices because of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Let us pursue justice by praying with our feet.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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A Response to the Tragic News in France

The news coming out of France the past couple of days is tragic, scary, and heartbreaking. First, the news of a terrorist attack at Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in which 12 people were murdered, including a police officer. Today only added to our communal heartache  as reportedly 4 hostages and the gunman have been killed after a terrorist took hostages in a Kosher supermarket in Paris. Why was Charlie Hedbo targeted? Because it represented freedom of expression, regardless of how satirical or offensive that expression was at times. Why was this supermarket targeted? Because the store’s patrons were Jews. We pray for a Shabbat Shalom — truly a Shabbat of peace, which we all greatly need. We find that peace in friends, in family, in coming together as community.

Apparently, French police called rabbis minutes before Shabbat started and asked them to cancel Shabbat services at their synagogues for security reasons. I cannot imagine receiving such a call. I cannot imagine living in a place where welcoming in Shabbat, where holding services, was a security risk.

May we take this Shabbat and come together as community. May we come together for all those who cannot, for those whom were murdered and will never again experience a Shabbat of peace, for those whose synagogues have been closed this Shabbat for security reasons and cannot come together, and for all of us who deeply need community, who deeply need to wrestle with God, and who deeply need each other’s shoulders to lean on at such a dark moment. May tomorrow bring light and may that ray of sunshine light up the darkness that we face, the darkness that exists. May that light put an end to hate, an end to fear, and be an expression of unity, of love, of peace.

May all humanity realize that we have not come into being to hate or to destroy. We have come into being to praise, to labor, and to love.

May we love each other a little bit more this Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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New Year’s Resolutions Aren’t Just About Us

My family and I celebrated New Year’s Eve at South Orange/Maplewood’s First Night celebration and we had a blast! What stood out to me though was the table in the lobby of Columbia High School, encouraging those who passed by to write down their New Year’s resolutions for 2015. One would be selected at random and win an iPad. In hopes of winning a new iPad, I submitted 16 different New Year’s resolutions, none of which were to win an iPad.

As I looked through all the resolutions displayed in the lobby, I found them troubling. We shouldn’t have to wait until we turn the page on the calendar for us to start anew. After all, our liturgy allows us to start fresh every morning. We don’t need a New Year’s Day — on any calendar — for us to do that.

HappyNewYearWhat was troubling though was not the time of year in which we made these resolutions; it was the resolutions themselves. They were self-centered, including mine! We make resolutions focused on ourselves: to lose weight, to exercise more, to work harder, to study more, to lie less, to spend more time with family. These aren’t bad resolutions. These are the type of resolutions we should all strive to make, opportunities that set us on course to be a better version of ourselves. But if we are to truly make New Year’s resolutions, then we need to think of resolutions that have an impact on others.

Our resolutions for the year ahead must focus on our communities and our neighbors, they must focus on those that we too often neglect or don’t think about enough. They must focus on the challenges of our country and the challenges on the other side of the world. We may choose to ignore these challenges because they seem impossible to tackle, impossible for a simple resolution to make a difference. Yet, such a thought process has led us to ignoring what we truly need to address, those issues which need to be a part of our 2015: justice, poverty, equality, and peace.

Our resolutions must not focus on our own lives, but rather how do we want to leave this world for generations to come. So join me in my New Year’s resolution for 2015, striving to make this world a better place, not just for all of us, but for our children and their children as well.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Mercy and Refuge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Fasting for Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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