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Words Matter

There’s a Hasidic story about a man who regretted the hateful words he said and finally wanted to change. He turned to his rabbi and asked how to repent. The rabbi told him to take his pillowcase and bring it into the middle of the forest and tear it open. He did just as the rabbi commanded. As he tore open the fabric, feathers flew everywhere. A gust of wind carried the feathers so far, the man could no longer see them. He returned to his rabbi, having completed the task, and feeling good. “Now go collect all the feathers and put them back in the pillow,” the rabbi said. The man knew that this was an impossible task, and learned the impact of his hateful words.

At the very end of Parashat Vayera, we read of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. Chapter 22 of Genesis begins

 V’yehi achar Hadvarim Haeleh, And it came to pass, after these things.

Most assume this is like the scrolling words at the beginning of a Star Wars film. They are meant to fill you in on what happened immediately prior to this narrative. They are meant to link the stories of the expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar, and Abraham’s conversations with Abimelech to this commandment to kill his son.

But the Hebrew word Devarim, means more than just “things.” It also means “words” and that is how the classical biblical commentator Rashi reads this verse. After these words were said, this happened. Rashi offers two midrashim, two rabbinic interpretations, to explain what words were said. First he suggests that these were the words of the Adversary, the celestial being that was God’s enemy, meant to challenge God. The Adversary said that Abraham wasn’t “devout enough” and wouldn’t even sacrifice those that he loved if God commanded him to do so, leading to this test by God. Second, Rashi suggests that these were words between brothers Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was giving Isaac a hard time because he was circumcised at only eight days old, while Ishmael went through the pain of being circumcised at thirteen years old. Giving his brother a hard time, Ishmael challenged Isaac to experience pain to show his commitment to God.

No matter the words that were said that led to the binding of Isaac narrative, we are reminded that words matter. Words lead to action. This has been on my mind as bombs were sent to news networks, Democratic party leaders, and financial supporters of Democratic candidates, after the President referred to them as enemies of the state. This was on my mind all last night, following the mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and seeing the President speak – and tweet – time and time again using the word “globalist,” a dog whistle Anti-Semitic slur.

The Anti-Defamation League said that this weekend’s mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue was likely the largest mass killing of Jews in US History. They regularly speak of the escalation of hate. They teach that words of bias are at the bottom of the pyramid of hate, but that eventually leads to bias motivated violence. Words matter.

Psalm 120 says that words are like sharp arrows, like smoldering coals. Midrash explains that they are like arrows because an individual can stand in one place and his words can still harm another, no matter how far away. And they are like coals because even when the outer parts of the coal have turned to ash, the inner embers still burn. Our words do damage long after we have even forgotten what words we’ve said.

And some time after these words, a terrible action happened.

Abraham acted, without even realizing how terrible his action was. Some argue that he failed the test by participating in such an act of violence. He was so focused on the act that he couldn’t even hear an angel of God calling out to him telling him to stop. That angel of God had to intervene. Midrash even says that the angel grabbed his hand and had him slaughter a ram caught in the thickets to prevent him from harming his son. Words did not cause his action, but they led to his action.

Let us think before we speak. Lest, like arrows or coals, our words cause serious harm to one another.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Fast, Pray, March

This weekend is a weekend of transition for our country. For some, it is filled with hope. For many, it is filled with fear. As I have said before, I hope and pray that the new administration lives up to the ideals of this country and of our faith. However, the fear that many feel comes from the hateful rhetoric of the campaign and the election. Many who voted for Mr. Trump voted for change, jobs, and the economy. I understand and acknowledge that. But I also know that this campaign and election condoned misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and bigotry. Many who fear this new administration coming to power do so because we fear that we will lose our healthcare, we fear that our loved ones will be deported, we fear that our marriages that we fought to be recognized will be questioned, we fear that there will be regression in the fight for racial justice, and we fear that others will try to legislate our bodies and our reproductive rights. At this time of transition, a time filled with hope for some, but fear for so many, we are taught to act. Our tradition teaches that when we face an unknown future, we act.

On Friday, the day of the Presidential Inauguration, I will be participating in a local grassroots event, the Inauguration of the Spirit of Goodwill. This event will focus on how the shared message of our faiths call on us to welcome the stranger, to work towards justice, and to love kindness. I encourage you to join me. I will also be joining many rabbinic colleagues on Friday in an Inauguration Fast. Private fasts used to be popular and commonplace and are mentioned throughout rabbinic literature. Jewish Law even encourages one to fast as an active way to atone for guilt or during a time of trouble to call on God’s mercy. Communal fasts were just as common when Jewish communities were dealing with events that caused great distress and threats to one’s safety. My rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Burt Visotzky, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, spoke of the need to have an Inauguration Fast:

There’s a whole tractate (section) of the Talmud that assumes that if there’s been a drought we need to look to our own piety … We are in a drought. We are hungry to live in a society that holds the ideals of our founding fathers dear.

If you are of able mind and body, and look to turn towards God as we face this unknown future, I encourage you to consider joining me in this sunrise-to-sunset fast.

feet-marchingMany have asked me where I will be this Shabbat. I will be where I am every Shabbat, with my community. I will be with our congregation, leading services and learning Torah together. We will have a full schedule of services for adults, preschoolers, and elementary school-aged children. I encourage you to join us to be with community this Shabbat. But I will also not be surprised or disappointed if I see many seats and pews that are empty, with many in our community spending Shabbat at marches in Washington DC, Manhattan, and Trenton. As I have mentioned many times, when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Dr. King and other civil rights leaders in Selma, Alabama, he answered the question of why he marched by explaining that he was praying with his feet. I know that no matter where you find yourself this Shabbat, be it at Congregation Beth El, Washington DC, New York City, or Trenton, you will be praying.

As our country begins a new chapter, I echo the words of my colleague, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz:

O God and God of our Ancestors, help us with our struggle. We yearn for the success of the American government, to fulfill its righteous mandate to protect its citizens from threats internal and foreign, to fortify the bonds between liberty and justice, to ordain fair treatment under the law, and to expand welfare to all those within its capacity.

We pray that the vision of the prophets—the redemptive power of justice; relief for the poor, welcome for the marginal, protection for the oppressed, care for the sick—and the vision of the Constitution of a more perfect union be brought about.

May this vision become a reality and may it happen speedily in our day. And may we continue to fast, to march, to pray, and to act, until it is so. Amen.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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