Tag Archives: Standing up

Don’t Claim to be Righteous When You are Just being Selfish

One of my favorite television shows is The Walking Dead. I am glad I am not alone in this, since it’s one of the most watched dramas on cable. The show tells the story of survival of a group of strangers who have become family, trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. I started watching believing it was a horror series, but despite the amazing make up and special effects, it is much more than that. It focuses on what one is willing to do in order to survive. And there are moments in the story where things seem normal to the viewer. There was the season where Rick and his friends set up a garden and a farm and were again living off the land. There was another moment when they were living in a gated community in modern homes, relying on solar panels to once again have electricity. They were eating freshly cooked meals around dining room tables. They were sleeping in king-sized beds on freshly washed sheets. For a moment, all was well in the world and you forgot the realities of this dystopian future. Then someone got bit by a “walker” and the terrible reality set in again. The characters realized that it was truly impossible to “play house” when the world around them – and the realities of that world – were destroyed.

I thought of my love for this pop culture phenomenon when reading Parashat Noach, this past week’s Torah portion, which tells the story of Noah building an ark to survive the deadly flood of forty days and forty nights. The Torah portion begins with the explanation that Noah was a righteous and simple person in his generation. Much inked has been spilled exploring what this means, debating how righteous Noah was exactly. Was he especially righteous because he didn’t give in to the peer pressure of doing wrong just as those around him did? Was he judged on a bell curve, only seen as righteous compared to those around him, but not compared to other righteous individuals in past or future generations? This is a question that without a doubt Noah asks of himself following the consequential flood.

The rarely taught in Hebrew School post-flood narrative shows the dark acceptance of a dystopian reality, much like the survivors of a zombie apocalypse. Noah exits the ark and immediately plants a vineyard. A verse later, the Torah tells us that he gets drunk and reveals his nakedness, and that his own child exposes his nakedness. Clearly, Noah is so inebriated, that he is unable to control his actions, or those of others. This was not a spontaneous decision to drink in excess. Anyone who has ever made their own wine knows that it takes time to till the soil, plant the vineyard, wait for the vines to grow, wait for them to bear fruit, wait for the grapes to ferment, wait for the wine to age in a dark area, and then eventually drink it. This is a months – if not years – long process. Noah knew exactly what he was doing, and this was his first action once he exited the ark. He did not declare how blessed he was to be saved. He did not thank God for the opportunity to repopulate the earth. Instead, he saw a world of doom and destruction, a world where he and his family were all that was left of humanity, and couldn’t live in this world without being intoxicated. If he did, then he would see the dismay and devastation; if he did, then he would realize that it was his fault.

One of the reasons that biblical commentator Rashi suggests that Noah would not be viewed as righteous compared to Abraham is because when Abraham hears that God is going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah, he stands up to God and fights to save the masses. He acknowledges the wrong doing of some, but fights for all – including the strangers that he doesn’t know. Noah is told by God to build an ark because a flood will annihilate the world and Noah doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t question, debate, or argue with God. He just builds the ark, relieved that he and his family will be spared. Only after the flood does he realize that this world is impossible to live in alone. He has survivor’s guilt, not just because he survived and others did not, but because he had the ability and opportunity to help others and chose to remain silent.

How often are we only concerned with how something directly impacts us? How often do we ignore the suffering if we are not harmed, or worse benefit because of that suffering? How often do we forget the teaching of our Mishnah, that if we only look at for ourselves, then who are we?

If we are not concerned with the millions that may lose healthcare as a result of cheaper monthly premiums for us, then we are not so righteous? If we are okay with ignoring the many programs that will be cut that help those who need it most in this country, just so we pay less in taxes, then we are not so righteous. If we ignore the pain and heartache of others for our own gain, then we are not so righteous. It took Noah until the world was completely wiped out to realize that he was wrong. He didn’t realize that his seemingly righteous actions were quite selfish until it was too late. Let us not make the same mistake. Let us not ignore the rights of others and try to justify it through religious conviction. Let us not threaten he most vulnerable among us and claim to still walk in God’s ways. Let us not be complacent with hurting others for our own gain and advancement. Let us not claim to be righteous when we spend so much of our time being selfish. Let’s begin by caring about others before we care for ourselves. Otherwise, we will end up regretting our actions or inactions, our decisions, and our votes, but it will be too late.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Standing Up on Purim

Purim is a holiday that promotes silliness. With costumes to groggers, loud noises and disguises, it’s easy to ignore the true message of Purim: it is the celebration of a miracle. In fact, we recite the words of Al HaNisim in our liturgy on the festival day — a variation of the same prayer that we say on Chanukah — praising the Divine for the miracle of saving the Jewish people. We celebrate with joy and thanksgiving the miracle of our continued existence.

 

However, I believe the miracle is also about something greater: it is about Esther’s transformation.

 

Apricot-Hamantaschen1At the very beginning of chapter two of Megillat Esther, Esther is referred to a single time as Hadassah, her Jewish name. The name Esther acculturated her, helping her to become Ahashverosh’s new queen. And as queen, she had it made. The text says that she “obtained grace and favor” in the sight of the king; she received unlimited gifts and dined at countless feasts. She was living the good life. When her cousin Mordechai shared with her Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews, she didn’t have to do anything. Although she was born Jewish, she had no fear for her personal safety; nothing was going to happen to Ahashverosh’s most beloved queen.

 

Esther was initially hesitant about standing up to the King. She didn’t feel the impact of Haman’s threat. But then she saw Mordecai tear his clothes and heard that the Jews of Shushan fasted for three days. She witnessed their pain and fear. While she knew that Haman’s plan might not impact her directly, she decided to use her privilege as queen to take a stand for the Jewish community.

 

Esther’s actions reflect those of Moses at the beginning of the book of Exodus. He, too, was a Jew-by-birth, but he was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, living a life of wealth, freedom, and prosperity. Pharaoh’s actions towards the Israelite slaves didn’t directly affect Moses. He didn’t have to do anything. Yet, seeing the suffering of the Israelites as they were being beaten by taskmasters, he took a stand. He didn’t have to for his own sake: he had to for the sake of others. Esther and Moses risked their own safety and gave up their comfort in order to save those who were suffering around them.

 

The miracle that we celebrate on Purim isn’t just that the Jews of Shushan were saved. The miracle is also that Esther took a stand to help others. We must live the lessons of Purim. We cannot only step out of our comfort zone to be silly. We must step out of our comfort zone to fight for the well being of others. We cannot only blot out Haman’s name. We must also blot out injustice. And as we celebrate miracles that will then take place, may we celebrate our willingness – and obligation – to take a stand for one another.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Standing up in Solidarity

On September 15, 1963, three members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 19 sticks of dynamite right outside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The church was always busy, serving as a local meeting place for civil rights leaders. On Sunday morning, due to worship services and the many activities it hosted, it was particularly packed. At 10:22 AM that morning, the dynamite exploded, killing four young girls, and injuring an additional 22 people. This was domestic terrorism, clearly a racist hate crime.

Over fifty years later, we are left asking what has changed? Last week, a man entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The white man joined congregants for bible study and stayed for over an hour, before opening fire on the African-American men and women present, killing nine, ranging in age from 16-87, including the church’s pastors. In custody, Dylan Roof admitted that he was hoping to start a race war.

We celebrate the advances in society towards equality and yet, we ignore that racism is alive and well in this country. The confederate flag flies high at statehouses in this country and is sold in stores. Highways are named after Southern generals who laid down their lives fighting for slavery. Since this tragic murder, many including South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, have called for the confederate flag — a flag that is a symbol of racism, slavery, and the greatest blemish on this country’s history — to be removed from the statehouse. Wal-mart and Amazon are among the companies that have declared that they will stop selling the confederate flag. While this is progress, albeit too late — after the murder of nine innocent victims, there is much that  our religious leaders and political leaders still must do.

I am proud to be a part of the local South Orange-Maplewood Interfaith Clergy Association. Last Friday, before Shabbat, we organized a last minute vigil at the South Orange NJ Transit train station to mourn, pray, and hope together. Although the vigil was scheduled at the last minute, well over a hundred members of the community attended to cry together and pray together. This was a power experience of unity. Yet, we must do more than pray. We must challenge our leaders.

StandAgainstRacismOrganizations representing the Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist movements in Judaism announced this week that they have joined together to declare that this Shabbat will be a Shabbat of Solidarity with the African-American community against racism. I appreciate the sentiment and always stand with my black brothers and sisters against racism. I don’t think you will find anyone in their right mind who wouldn’t agree that what happened at the Emanuel AME Church was a heinous, racist attack. The murderer said so himself! But we cannot only take a stand against racism when such terrible murders happen in this country and ignore the systemic racism that exists in society and that too many deal with on a daily basis. Where was the solidarity Shabbat following the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, or Freddie Gray? Where was the solidarity Shabbat when Trayvon Martin was killed for wearing a hoodie or young black teens were tackled by police for swimming in McKinney, Texas? The Jewish community — and society as a whole — has been too quiet in standing up to the systemic racism in this country. We all must stand up against racism, but I must ask, what has taken us so long to take a stand?

As we stand in solidarity, the tragedy of Charleston must be a spark that forces us to stand up more. We cannot wait for our leaders to act. We must stand up to our leaders and demand that they act. Last Shabbat, we read Parashat Korach. In this Torah portion Korach challenges Moses’ leadership and attempts to start a rebellion. He embarrasses Moses publicly, fails in his attempt to overthrow the leadership, and ends up being swallowed up by the earth. The Torah commentator Rashi suggests that Korach failed because he was only interested in his own power. Yet, maybe he wasn’t wrong in his efforts, just in his execution. There are times when we must stand up to leadership. There are times when we must stand up to apathy and stand up for what we believe in. We must take what Korach attempted to do and channel it for the right cause — to change society and make a difference in the world. Fifty years later we need to stop standing up a lot more.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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