Tag Archives: Tisha B’Av

The Comfort of the Olympics

The Olympics may have come to a close, but I can’t help but think back on the past few weeks and try to figure out why I was so obsessed with watching the Rio Games. I’m not sure what it is about the Olympics that causes us to stop and watch. Maybe it’s because it is on primetime and there is nothing else on television. Maybe it is because it’s a much needed respite from the hateful rhetoric, name-calling, and 24-hour non-breaking news “breaking news” of the election cycle.

Whatever it is, there is something about the Olympics. I am a big sports fan. But when it comes to the Olympics, I find myself cheering for and watching sports I never watch. I DVR Beach volleyball, sprinting, fencing, gymnastics. I stop everything I do anytime Michael Phelps gets in the pool to make sure I can watch him win his millionth gold medal live. I watch these sports, but not because I love these sports. There is no other time that I insist on watching competitive swimming or fencing. It is not so much about the actual sports, as much as it is about friendly competition.

Rio2016.pngThe Olympics are a reminder of all of us coming together – all of humanity. Yes, we want to beat the opponent, but to compete against each other is an acknowledge that the other is our equal. It is a reminder that we are all one. No matter who odd the artful performance is at the opening ceremonies, the sight of athletes from each country – and even those who are refugees and have had to flee their home countries – celebrates each individual as made in the image of God. We come together, because we find comfort in each other.

We find comfort in knowing that the entire world is watching these games. We find comfort in knowing that the Olympics celebrate individuals, all of humanity, being together. On this Shabbat, referred to as  Shabbat Nachamu, we sought comfort. The Hebrew word Nachamu is the command form of comfort. Taken from the first word of the haftarah reading, from the book of Isaiah, this is a statement of comfort following the mournful day of Tisha B’Av, which was celebrated the week prior. We find comfort following mourning, following senseless hatred. But it is how we find comfort that is quite remarkable.

The haftarah begins: Nachamu, Nachamu, Ami. Comfort, oh Comfort, my people.

The doubling of the word helps us to understand it’s importance. Like when in angel called out to Abraham twice to prevent him from sacrificing his son (Gen. 22:11) or the command of “Justice, Justice, you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20), the repetition of Nachamu reminds us, the readers, of the importance of this act. It is essential that we not just seek comfort, but that we act to comfort one another.

Throughout the books of the Prophets, we read of the prophets speaking on behalf of God. While the words may come out of the prophets’ mouths, they are God’s words to the people of Israel. We are then left asking, who is God talking to? If this is Isaiah speaking to the Israelites, then is God telling the Israelites – God’s people  — to comfort His people? That doesn’t seem to make sense.

The 16th century rabbi, the Radbaz, explains in Metzudat David that God is telling the prophets to comfort the Israelites. The doubling, he adds, represents the urgency of this. On Shabbat Nachamu we learned that it is not God who comforts us; it is each other who comforts us. We are meant to comfort each other. If we celebrate all of humanity made in God’s image, then we, in the divine image, walk in God’s ways and act on God’s behalf. We serve as God’s messengers. Nachamu Nachamu Ami. We comfort each other. And in doing so, God comforts us.

So what is it about the Olympics? Seeing athletes of all races and ethnicities coming together in friendly competition, treating each other as equals. This is a much needed break from the hate that too often consumes us and this world. This is a much needed comfort from the senseless hatred that we acknowledged just days earlier on Tisha B’Av. So we comfort each other. If only such acts of coming together didn’t only happen every four years. Nachamu, Nachamu Ami. May we all find comfort in each other.

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It’s Time for Less Prayer and More Action

I was disappointed with myself last week. It took me several hours to even reflect and realize my own apathy. Flipping through channels last Thursday, I saw the news report of the latest mass shooting in our country, when gunman John Russel Houser opened fire last week at The Grand Movie Theater in Lafayette, during a screening of Trainwreck. Two victims were murdered. An additional nine victims were injured, and the gunman eventually took his own life. I watched reports of this terrible tragedy for a few moments and then changed the channel to see what else was on. Hours later I was so angry with myself — and with what society has become — that mass shootings have become so commonplace, have become the norm, that such an event is a nightly headline. I was so disappointed with myself that instead of this massacre leading to action, I just flipped the channel to watch something funny, lighthearted, and fiction instead.

The reality is that mass shootings are all too common in this country. It was less than two weeks ago that Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire on a military base in Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing four U.S. Marines and himself. It was barely a month ago that Dylann Roof shot up Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, with the racist intentions of murdering African-American parishioners. He murdered nine people, included the church’s senior pastor. And of course, these are only the mass shootings that we hear about, that are covered on television, in newspapers, and on blogs. According to Business Insider, Mass Shootings are so common in America that we don’t even hear about most of them.

Lafayette shootingI was angry at my own apathy because we cannot let apathy become our reality. We cannot let our minds, hearts, and souls become numb to our country’s gun violence epidemic. Gun violence in America is much worse than in other developed countries. We need to start doing a lot more, and simply praying is not the answer. Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana called for prayers following an ‘awful night in Louisiana,’ referring to last week’s movie theater shooting in Lafayette. As a rabbi who prays three times daily, I strongly encourage prayer. I believe pray helps us connect to something greater than ourselves and balances us when life feels chaotic and we feel helpless. But prayer alone cannot be the answer.

Last Shabbat, the Shabbat prior to the mournful day of Tisha B’Av on the Jewish calendar, was referred to as Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Vision, named for the prophetic warnings found in the special Haftarah reading. While Tisha B’av is a day on the Jewish calendar that allows us to mourn the societal tragedies of history caused by humanity’s hateful actions, the Sabbath prior is meant to warn us of the tragedy on the horizon if we do not change our ways. In this Haftarah, taken from chapter one of the book of Isaiah, the prophet urges the Israelites to change their ways and finally, speaking for God, essentially says, “enough with the worship. It is time to act!”

We read in Isaiah 1:11-12 —

‘What need have I of all your sacrifices?’ says the Lord. ‘I am sated with burnet offerings of rams,

And suet of fatlings, And blood of bulls; And I have no delight In lambs and he-goats. That you come to appear before Me –Who asked that of you?’

God is saying that there is no point in worship if people will not change their ways, if society is unwilling to change. Such sacrificial ritual, and such modern-day prayer, is almost offensive if the prayerful words are meaningless, if the promise to change is a false promise. God goes as far as to say in Isaiah 1:15 —

And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; Though you pray at length, I will not listen.

Instead God wants us to seek justice and change our ways as a people and as society. Isaiah continues in 1:15-17 –

Your hands are stained with crime – Wash yourselves clean; put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged.

It’s time for less prayer and more action. We must take Isaiah’s words – God’s words – to heart. I am sorry Governor Jindal, but I disagree with you. We cannot simply pray. We need to act. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but I am tired of a country that cannot pass any true gun control legislation because the gun lobby has more control over our elected officials than we, the voters, residents, and citizens of this country, do. I am tired of a country where a true conversation about level-headed gun control gets shut down automatically and becomes partisan debate. I am tired of a country which understands every other part of the U.S. constitution to be up for interpretation except for our reading of the Second Amendment. And I am tired of a country that permits me to become apathetic, even for a moment, when hearing about bloodshed caused by a bullet.

Those who disagree with me challenge how I can guarantee that guns will be kept out of the hands of criminals. I cannot. Legislative changes cannot. However, I do know this: I know that it is easier to legally buy a gun than it is to register to vote. Furthermore, the restrictions on driving and receiving a driver’s license because of mental illness, medical conditions, or previous illegal driving activity make it far more difficult to legally drive a car than to legally buy a gun. I also know this: Muhammed Abdulazeez had a history of drug abuse and depression and was able to legally buy the gun that he used to murder four U.S. Marines. Dylann Roof had pending felony charge. Federal law prohibits people with pending felony charges from obtaining firearms. Yet, a legal loophole allowed Roof to obtain a gun, because South Carolina is one of many states that does not require background checks for private gun transactions. John Houser was mentally unstable and told by judges on two separate occasions that his cognitive well-being needed to be evaluated by a specialist. But because he was never involuntarily committed to a mental hospital, he was still able to legally buy a gun, which he did from a pawn shop in Alabama, before using it to shoot up a movie theater in Louisiana.

I know that we as a nation can do better. We must do better. We must pass commonsense gun control reform to prevent those who shouldn’t be able to, from legally obtaining a firearm. We will not be able to fully solve the gun violence epidemic in our country. However, doing nothing only allows it to continue, and as long as we do nothing, we are just as responsible for the bloodshed of our parents, our spouses, our children, and our loved ones. How many people need to be murdered by a firearm in a movie theater or house of worship, on a military base or in a hospital, in a shopping mall or school, before we finally come to our senses and pass commonsense gun control?

In Isaiah’s prophecy, God requires that we devote ourselves to justice. To fail to act and to allow our elected officials to not act is an injustice! We need to stop our calls for prayer and begin our calls for action. God requires that of us, and the fragility of life requires that of us as well.

-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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