Tag Archives: Teshuvah

Pride and Teshuvah

Grasshoppers. Our Torah, in Parashat Shelach Lecha, read last Shabbat, emphasizes that we saw ourselves as grasshoppers. Moses is commanded to send out twelve scouts to scout out the promised land. While Caleb and Joshua give favorable remarks, ten return and say:

“All the people that we saw in the land were of great size – we saw giants there – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Num. 12: 32-33).

Clearly, if we see ourselves as grasshoppers, we fear others see us this way as well. But we never stop to acknowledge why we might see ourselves as grasshoppers and who or what might cause us to think of ourselves as grasshoppers. When we are told that something is wrong with us, we begin to feel that something is wrong with us, we believe that something us wrong with us.

PrideFlagsInLobbyI posted on Instagram at the beginning of the month – because if you know me, you know that I regularly post on social media. (Shameless plug: feel free to follow me @JMOlitzky and everything Congregation Beth El related #BethElNJ). I had posted a picture of our Pride flags hanging in our synagogue lobby as we kicked off Pride month. A rabbinic colleague reached out following my post and asked about why we proudly hang our pride flags. The Jewish community already knows that you are welcoming and inclusive, he said. After all, you are located in South Orange-Maplewood, he said. And this my friends, is the problem with most religious institutions. We thinking it is good enough to be welcoming. We think it is acceptable just to be accepting.

Too many of our institutions refuse to acknowledge the hurt and pain that we have caused. So many of our synagogues and churches, schools, camps, and youth groups caused so much pain to our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer community members for so long. We not only turned away so many amazing individuals from organized religion and God, but also pushed a hetero-normative culture, and hid behind a specific verse of scripture – or a particular rabbinic interpretation of said verse – to suggest that there was something wrong with them because of who they love or how they identify. Our communities are at fault for far too long treating our loved ones, our community members who identify as gay, trans, bi, queer, gender non-binary or gender fluid, as grasshoppers.

AndGodCreatedLGBTQAnd too many institutions, too many houses of worship refuse to even do teshuvah and acknowledge the pain that we caused on generations of members of our communities. It is amazing how many religious communities celebrate the LGBTQ community. At the recent North Jersey Pride Festival, there were five synagogues and three churches present! It is not enough to just condone our community members. It is not enough to just accept our community members. We celebrate. We wave our pride flags high to celebrate. We recite pride blessings to celebrate. We participate in the Pride Festival to celebrate. We celebrate as a way of doing teshuvah. We celebrate so that no one here should ever feel as if they are grasshoppers. We celebrate so we all always feel like giants. We celebrate so that every home we enter, whenever we stand on the precipice of our promised lands, we don’t have to fear entering that new land or fear coming out of the closet. Rather, we celebrate each and every person, and in doing so, we celebrate our faith in God because we celebrate our faith in ourselves, being created in God’s image.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Forgive Yourself

During these days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we spend extra time reflecting on ourselves. We insert additional words into our daily Amidah prayers, asking God to remember the good that we have done in our lives.

But we are supposed to do more than just recite additional words of liturgy. We are taught to spend these days saying sorry. We apologize to those that we have wronged – knowingly and unknowingly – through the past year. We reach out to family members, friends, co-workers, and classmates, and apologize if we have hurt them in anyway. Sometimes, it is easy to know when we have wronged another. Other times though, we hurt someone’s feelings without even realizing it. That is why we reach out to those that we care about to say we’re sorry, whether we know we have hurt them or not.

In that vein, I want to apologize to you if I have done anything during this past year to hurt you. If I did, I truly apologize.

Forgive

We first ask for forgiveness from others, and then we ask for forgiveness from God. We repent during these days leading up to Yom Kippur so that we can beginning the most serious of days apologizing to God. We go into the day of fasting, a day filled with admitting our mistakes and transgressions, knowing that God will forgive us. We wear white on Yom Kippur because it is a symbol of a new beginning. We believe that we will be sealed for a new start and clean slate in the year to come.

Lastly, and most important, we need to forgive ourselves. We are our own biggest critics. We are often harder on ourselves than others are. We continue to feel the pain of our wrongdoings long after we have turned a new page. The most important step in this process of renewal is being able to forgive ourselves. Yes, we must admit our mistakes, but just as we did during the Tashlikh ritual, we must let go of what we’ve done in order to truly begin again. May we have the courage to ask ourselves for forgiveness and may we have the strength to finally forgive ourselves.

Wishing you a meaningful conclusion to these days of reflection!

Gmar Chatima Tova!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Star Wars and Jewish Thought Have Same Take on Good Versus Evil

This article was originally published on December 18, 2015 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

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Star Wars has always been about more than just galactic war, aliens, and planet traveling. It is about the fight of good versus evil. How one uses the Force is equivalent to the rabbinic tradition’s ‘yetzer tov’ and ‘yetzer rah.’

HaaretzStarWarsPicMost sci-fi enthusiasts say the most pivotal moment in the iconic Star Wars franchise took place in The Empire Strikes Back when the evil Darth Vader reveals to the young Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker that he is in fact his father. They use this argument to support their claim that Episode V is the best film in the series.

While that may be true, the most important moment for me is the end of Return of the Jedi when Vader prevents the evil Darth Sidious, Emperor Palpatine, from killing his son Luke. At that moment, Vader abandons his commitment to the Dark Side and his status as a Sith Lord, and instead uses the Force for good. He even has his son remove his mask, killing him in the process.

Star Wars has always been about more than just galactic war, aliens, and planet traveling. It is about the fight of good versus evil. The Force within the Star Wars universe represents the talent and ability inside each of us to be good and do good. The Force is each individual’s opportunity and responsibility to stand up for good. The Light Side and the Dark Side, the result of how one uses the Force, is equivalent to the rabbinic tradition’s yetzer tov and yetzer rah, one’s good inclination and one’s evil inclination.

The yetzer rah that haunts us, and leads us down a dark path, is not what we think. We tend to look at those who do wrong as selfish, only thinking about themselves. Similarly, when we look at Anakin Skywalker embracing the Dark Side, we think that jealousy and ego led him to turn evil. Yet, there is a selflessness to that selfishness. Anakin turns to the Dark Side because Palpatine promises that doing so will give him the power to save his wife, Padmé. Midrash teaches that a similar drive pushes someone to do wrong (Genesis Rabbah 9:7). We desire safety, security, health – for ourselves, but also for others. We do not want to accept that some things are out of our control. Trying to control what we cannot control ultimately leads us down the path of wrongdoing. There is not a Sith Lord pushing us to do evil. There is only ourselves and our own desires.

One may think that we begin in a pure state and that our relationship with others and the manner in which we are influenced by society makes us impure. Rabbinic Judaism offers the opposite perspective. Rabbinic tradition teaches that one is born solely with the yetzer rah and only acquires the yetzer tov at age 13 (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 16). That is why one does not become bar mitzvah, and does not become obligated or responsible until that age. If Judaism teaches that we begin with a state of wrongdoing and only learn to do good, then the yetzer tov is not only equivalent to the Force being used for good. It is also symbolic of the hope that is present throughout the films. The first Star Wars film, Episode IV, is even called A New Hope.

That hope is what drives the Jewish people. In fact, that eternal hope is the gift of Judaism. The hope that good will defeat evil, both in this world and within ourselves, is the hope we sing about in the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah. That hope is found in the scriptural narrative of our people, the exodus experience following 400 years of slavery and servitude. That hope is prominent in Psalms, as the Psalmist promises “weeping may endure for an evening, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5).

Similarly, Star Wars embodies hope for a better future. We can easily become disheartened by reading headlines and watching the news. We see evil in the world around us and fear the dark direction that society is heading in. We hear xenophobic and bigoted statements from community leaders and politicians and fear that our society, which prides itself on freedom and democracy, is becoming the evil empire.

Yet, Star Wars is a call to action. It turned a moisture farmer on the forgotten desert planet of Tattoine into a Jedi Knight. It turned the self-centered Han Solo into a hero that cared about others and not just about himself. Yet it demands we drive that change toward a better future by ensuring the yetzer tov within each us, and within society, prevails.

May the Force be with you.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Returning is Not Hitting the Reset Button

As I’ve mentioned before, my preschooler and I have very different understandings of what it means to binge watch something. I love binge watching a full season of a show in a week, or devoting all my television viewing to a single show that I’ve never seen. I spend the next several months only watching that, until I’ve completed all seven seasons. My daughter understands binge watching to mean watching the same thing over and over again. Her latest obsession: Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph. When she wakes up early in the morning before it is time to get ready for school, we cuddle on the couch and I dose off again as she watches the same movie one more time. While I enjoy the film, and appreciate the video game comedy (most of which entirely goes over her head), I still think twelve times in two weeks is a bit much for one movie!

During these Aseret Yamei Teshuva, these Ten Days of Repentance, I was watching it again with my daughter and was wreckitralphstruck by the recurring video game-based humor of the movie that offered insight during these days of reflection. The premise focuses on the “real lives” of video game characters in an arcade. Much like Toy Story was for toys, Wreck-It Ralph imagines that after the arcade closes, all the video game characters come to life hang out with each other, traveling through the wires (a subway system) from stop to stop, from console to console.

Yet, they would joke that as long as they remained in their own game, they would not die. Even Fix-It Felix Jr. had a piece of ceiling crush him and yet, he reappeared, a reference to the many lives one has in a video game. And at the end of every day, once the arcade closed, the characters of each game, the bad guys and the heroes, even the bystanders, would straighten up the game so that it was ready for the next day when the next quarter was inserted into the console, when they would return to the beginning and start all over again.

I thought of this as we celebrated Shabbat Shuva this past Shabbat, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Shabbat of Return. The name of the Shabbat is taken from the beginning of the Haftarah read that morning in which the prophet Hosea calls out:

Shuva Yisrael ad Adonai Elohecha, Return people of Israel to Adonai your God.

We are taught that we spend these days of repentance returning. But where do we return to? Unlike these arcade game characters, we do not return to the beginning. When we make mistakes, we do not get sent back to the beginning of level one to start our journeys over. We do not get extra lives to bring us back from mistakes. Yet, we do get a clean slate. More powerful than starting over and more practical than hitting the reset button, we get to return to something greater.

We do not – and cannot – return to the beginning of our journeys. Instead, we return to the truest version of ourselves. That means that we still have to clean up our messes and deal with whatever happened in the past. But it also means that we cannot change the past. Nor should we try to. Let the past stay in the past. We cannot return to level one. Instead we return brand-new as our authentic selves, wherever we are in our journeys in the game of life. May we take advantage of this opportunity to return to each other, and return to God as well.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah. May you have a meaningful conclusion to the High Holy Day season.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Be Like Esau

A week and a half ago, I ended Shabbat as I always do, by checking the news and seeing what has happened in the world over the past twenty-four hours. It was then that I read about the arson attack at the Hand-in-Hand school in Jerusalem. A preschool classroom in this school, a school overseen be Arab and Jewish principals, a school where hundreds of Arab and Jewish students learn together from Pre-Kindergarten until 12th grade, was engulfed in flames, likely set on fire by Jewish extremists in a so called “price tag” attack. In addition to the arson attack, graffiti has regularly been found on the walls, which read: Death to Arabs, and You can’t coexist with cancer. Such attacks are nationalistically motivated hate crimes, and this was likely in response to the many terrorist attacks that have occurred throughout the past several weeks, most notably the butchering of worshippers in a synagogue in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof.

Yet, even more notably, was the response of the students. On Sunday, the day after the attack, Arab and Jewish students gathered in the park across from the school. Supporting the school’s motto of “We refuse to be enemies,” one student said: “This is a bad thing, but it shows us how important this school – and the idea behind it – is”. “We want to prove that Arabs and Jews can live together in Israel,” he said. “We are all human and need to respect each other.” No retaliation. Only love.

I am reminded of this summer when Eyal, Naftali, and Gil’ad were kidnapped as they hitchhiked home from their West Bank Yeshiva and were brutally murdered and burned to a crisp. Rachel Fraenkel, the mourning mother of Naftali Fraenkel, made a public statement when hearing of the revenge killing of Muhammad Abu Khdeir by Jewish extremists. “Even in the abyss of mourning,” she said, “it is difficult to describe how distressed we are by the outrage committed in Jersualem.” She denounced such a revenge killing and even visited Abu Khdeir’s mother to offer condolences.

To mourn the loss of a child. To mourn the destruction of a school. And still, to dream of a better future, and to not hold a grudge. To not want revenge and only to want peace. That is powerful. That is what we all strive for and who we strive to be. We cannot resort to “price tag” racist retaliation. We cannot resort to the belief that you harmed me so I must harm you. We are better than that. We must be better than that.

Last Shabbat, we read Parashat Vayishlach. In this Torah portion, we find Jacob journeying to reunite with his brother Esau. Jacob attempts to buy forgiveness, as we see in Gen. 32:6:

I have acquired cattle, donkeys, sheep, servants, and I send this message to you in hopes of gaining your favor.

Jacob hoped that if he gave Esau enough gifts, all would be forgotten – the lopsided birthright for soup exchange and the stolen blessing from their father. When Jacob heard instead that Esau was coming to meet him, he was fearful that Esau would attack him.

Finally, after sending his family ahead, after wrestling with an angel, he saw Esau coming towards him, accompanied by 400 men. Jacob was scared. And Esau came running towards him, but not to attack. As we read in Genesis 33:4:

And Esau ran to greet him and embraced him, hugged him, fell on his neck, and kissed him and wept.

In a way, as if Esau was letting go as well, letting go of the grief, letting go of the grudge, he leaned on his brother Jacob, fell on his neck, and just began wailing. He was emotionally exhausted from hating him, from being so angry with him and realizing that this got him nowhere. Esau let it go. And not only was Jacob better off as a result. Esau was better off as well.

We focus on Jacob and Esau and how our tradition made Jacob the hero and Esau the scapegoat. Yet, I want to take it one step further. We can’t just say that Esau was innocent and got a bad rap. We must actually strive to be like Esau. We must be more like Esau. As difficult as repentance is, it’s easy to ask for forgiveness once we realize that we have done wrong. It is much harder to have been wronged and victimized and still be willing to forgive.

We must be brave and courageous enough to let it go and forgive. We must always be willing to hug and embrace someone and move on. May we be strong enough to forgive. May we be strong enough to be like Esau.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Conclusion of the Pop Elul Project

With the month of Elul coming to a close, and Rosh Hashanah only hours away, the Pop Elul Project has concluded… at least for this year. Like the blast of the shofar, I hope the Pop Elul Project assisted in spiritually waking us up, to prepare ourselves, and purify ourselves for the year ahead.

I am honored to share that the Pop Elul Project was picked up and shared by the Hollywood Journal. The Hollywood Journal strives to share soulful wisdom and spirituality in a world of pop culture too often focused on fame and celebrity status. I believe that the Pop Elul Project’s inclusion in the Hollywood Journal is just another example of how Judaism has entered the public marketplace and how Jewish thought, wisdom, ethics, and values are not only limited to the Jewish community. Rather, they are an asset to all of humanity.

Furthermore, the teachings and reflections that prepare us for the New Year during Elul are not only limited to the month of Elul and this Season of Awe and Amazement. They are important reminders for us throughout the year. We all need a wake up call every now and again. So I invite you to check out the entire month’s reflections for the Pop Elul Project at popelul.com or check out how Judaism has entered the marketplace of ideas by checking out the Pop Elul Project on the Hollywood Journal’s website.

Shana Tova! May this be a year of happiness, health, and love!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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