Tag Archives: Torah

Being Held to a Higher Standard

When trying to understand what we look for in a leader, everyone has their own list of essential qualities. Forbes offers a list of leadership qualities for business success which include honesty, confidence, and commitment. CNN and Careerbuilder.com add passion and respect to the list of necessary qualities. Even rabbinic tradition offers its own definition of a leader. Midrash explains the qualities of the High Priest by suggesting that he must be handsome, of great strength, of great wealth, of great knowledge, and have many years of experience (Vaykira Rabba 26:9). While we may disagree on what those leadership qualities look like, it is clear that we each expect much from our leaders.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Emor. This section of our narrative begins with specific requirements of what the priests, the religious and ritual leaders of the Israelites, can and cannot do. In Parashat Kedoshim, we were taught that “you should be holy for I, the Lord, Your God, Am Holy.” Holiness is what we all seek. Holiness through our words and holiness through our actions. And yet, at the beginning of Parashat Emor, we find a greater and more detailed list of expectations for the priests. 

The priests who offered biblical sacrifices on behalf of the Israelites are forbidden from coming into contact with the dead. Additionally, the priests are prohibited from shaving their heads or sideburns. They were forbidden from profaning God’s name. There were limits to whom the priest could marry, how a priest must physically look, to whom and what a priest can and cannot come in contact with.

Remarkably, these verses – unlike most found in the Torah – are specific and limited to the leaders of the community. Clearly, the Torah is suggesting that leaders are held to a different standard. A leader is supposed to be different – not perfect, for no one is. But the beginning of Parashat Emor teaches us that a leader is supposed to be held to a higher standard. A leader puts the interests of those that she or he represents before others. A leader cares about others more than himself or herself. A leader does not ignore the actions of followers. Instead, a leader calls them out when their behavior is inappropriate and defers from the leader’s vision.

If Torah teaches us that leaders are held to a higher standard, that leaders strive for a different level of holiness, then it is our responsibility to call out leaders when all that they do and all that they say are the complete opposite of that which is holy. When our leaders lead through bigotry, hate, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and misogyny, we must call it out. Striving to be holy means seeing each individual as holy. And leading through hate is the opposite of holiness, it is chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. 

We expect more from our leaders because of the impact that they have on us. The Torah speaks of a great sense of kedushah of the priests, not just because they performed ritual sacrifices, but because of the opportunities they had to guide so many. We should expect our leaders to guide us. May their actions be holy so that they guide us to a life of holiness. May they also see the holiness in each individual. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

$15 and the Half-Shekel: Lessons from the Torah on a Living Wage

Last week, at the urging of Faith in New Jersey (@FaithinNJ), a faith-based social justice organization (formerly known as PICO-NJ), I – along with other Essex County clergy – was asked to attend Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s press conference at Newark City Hall. As clergy, we stood beside Mayor Baraka and members of 32BJ SEIU as the Mayor declared his support for raising the minimum wage for Port Authority employees to $15 an hour. These employees include those who work at Newark Liberty International Airport, an airport that all in our area – and most throughout the state of Jersey – frequent for air travel. The airport is owned by the city of Newark, but leased to the Port Authority. Since the city owns the land, and the airport is the largest employer in the city of Newark – and likely the entire state – the airport, and the way its employees are treated are representative of the values of Newark and the entire state of New Jersey.

The Mayor was asked what mathematical formula he used to come up with the number $15. He smiled and responded “the formula we used was the formula of justice.” He added:

No airport worker that works full-time should have to live in poverty and be forced to make the choice between housing, food and health care. I think we need $15 immediately.

BarakaLivingWage.jpg

Mayor Baraka, members of 32BJ SEIU, and Essex County clergy

When the minimum wage became a requirement of law as part of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, it was meant to be a sufficient amount so that an individual could provide for his or her family. Minimum wage was meant to be a living wage. In 1968, the minimum wage was at $1.60/hour. In 2013, that wage would be equivalent to $10.71/hour. According to the Economic Policy Institute, if wage increases had kept up with labor productivity, then the minimum wage in 2013 should have been $18.23/hour. Yet, the federal minimum wage remains $7.25/hour. The New Jersey state minimum wage is $8.38/hour. These are hardly a living wage, and hardly what was intended when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed over 75 years ago.

This past Shabbat, we read a special Torah reading as part of the special Shabbat, Shabbat Shekalim. In this Torah reading, we are told:

This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight… (Ex. 30:13)

The Torah commands that each pay a half-shekel as part of a census. Most read the text and conclude that this census was to see how many able-bodied adult males there were to fight, as the Israelites were preparing for the inevitable battles when they entered the Promised Land. However, the half-shekel had even greater significance. The half-shekel was not too much money. It was enough so that everyone could participate. It was an example of everyone being on equal footing, and having the same chance, the same equal opportunity. Obviously the half-shekel meant less to the wealthy than others. Still, it was a symbol of equal opportunity and an equal chance.

We live in a society that is not living up to the promise of this biblical society, in which all are seen as equals and all are given an equal opportunity. No one donated a half-shekel and cried poverty. All were seen as equals. So too, no one should work a forty-hour a week job and not be able to provide food on the table or a home to live in.

I proudly stood with other clergy as Mayor Baraka made his statements in support of increasing the minimum wage to $15/hour. I did so not just as a resident of Essex County. I did so as a person of faith. We must fulfill the biblical promise of this census. We must ensure that all have equal opportunity to succeed in society. That begins with the fight for $15. That begins with the promise to pay individuals a living wage.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Standing with our Brothers and Sisters

Last week, as we began the Torah anew, and read Parashat Breishit, we did more than just simply read about the creation of the world. We read about our need, as human beings, to look out for one another, and be concerned about each other. Upon creating Adam, God declares in Genesis 2:18:

It’s not good for an individual to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for that person.

We often thing that this verse suggests our need to search for our bashert, our soul mate. We tend to believe that this verse focuses on the need to find a partner. However, I would like to suggest that this has little to do with love and companionship and instead, is a guide to our relationship with the world. It is not good for a person to be alone. So too, we cannot live in this world alone. We cannot live only focused on ourselves, on our own issues, on that which concerns us or impacts us, and ignore everything else. We cannot pretend that the hate, violence, and terror in this world does not exist. We cannot look at the world around us and become apathetic or pretend that we don’t care. We cannot think that as long as we are safe, the world is safe. We cannot pretend that we are alone and most importantly, we cannot leave our brothers and sisters alone when they need us most.

Over the past two weeks, there have been dozens of terror attacks throughout Israel. These aren’t just attacks in disputed territories in the West Bank (which still would not justify the violent acts that took place). These are attacks on individuals in downtown Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. These are attacks in quaint and quiet suburbs. These murderers are driving their cars into populated areas, and mobbing cars as Israelis drive by. They are stealing IDF soldiers’ guns and opening fire. Most often, they are stabbing incident victims in public areas with butcher knives.

I am guilty – like many of us – of just reading the headlines and accepting the reality of terror and fear. We do not know what to do and feel helpless. We read of these horrific accounts and may mourn privately, but don’t do anything. We just watch when we must be our brothers’ keepers.

We find in the Book of Daniel the reference to the Iyr, the Watcher, an angel that comes down from Heaven solely to observe They appear again in the books of the Apocrypha and are mentioned in the Kabbalistic texts of the Zohar. They just watch. They do not intervene. They do not react.

As human beings, we too are angels. We too are messengers. After all, when Abraham is visited by three angels of God, he first sees three men in the distance. It is only after greeting them and welcoming them in, that he learns of their divine tasks. We too are angels, and yet, we are becoming Watchers. We witness murder and bloodshed, a world of hate and violence, and we just watch. Our goal is to be divine messengers, not angelic observers.

We not only find the creation of life in Parashat Breishit. We also find the end of life. Soon after Cain and Abel are born to Eve, Cain murders his brother. God, already knowing the answer to the question, asks Cain where his brother Abel is. Cain responds with a challenging question of his own:

Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

Yes. We are our brothers’ keepers. We are our sisters’ keepers. We cannot only sit and watch like angelic creatures and not do anything about it. As we pray for peace, may we also stand united in support of Israel and her citizens who in the current state of affairs, risk their lives everyday by simply living their normal lives. I pray for the day that peace will come. I pray for an end to violence and terrorism. Until then, we must not be alone, and make sure that our brothers and sisters do not feel left alone either. We must look out for each other. We must stand with each other. Together, united, as each other’s angels, may we find peace.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Ger Toshav, the Jewish Community, and Immigration Reform

It initially looked like bipartisan immigration reform would happen in 2011 or 2012. This was delayed because politicians were more focused on getting elected than making change. A bipartisan immigration reform bill came to the floor of the house in 2013, after it overwhelmingly passed in the Senate. It has since been stuck in the gridlock that is the United States Congress. President Obama seemed determined to act on immigration reform this fall, but was pressured by leaders of the Democratic Party to again wait until after the recent midterm elections. They were concerned that such action would have an impact on close races. Pundits now suggest that such inaction was in fact what kept the Democratic base away from the polls on election day.

ImmigrationReformNowMany news outlets have been suggesting that President Obama will act as early as this week, using his executive authority to change America’s immigration policy.  Such reform would not be citizenship and would not be issuing green cards. Rather, it would be an opportunity to breathe a sigh of relief for some five million members of society who live in the United States and work in the United States, who identify as American even if they were not born or raised here, even if they are not citizens. Such action would ensure that these five million individuals are not deported and separated from their children who were born here and are American citizens.

This past week, we read Parashat Chaye Sarah, the Torah portion of Chaye Sarah. The Torah reading begins with Abraham, in Hebron, attempting to find a burial site for his recently deceased wife, Sarah. He ends up buying Ma’arat HaMachpela, the Cave of Machpela, and burying her there. What is so interesting to me is why he chooses Hebron, in the biblical land of Canaan, as the burial site for his wife, and eventually himself as well. He only recently journeyed to Canaan, to the land that God promised to show him, and yet, it felt like home. It was the destination of his journey. It was where he believed things would be better.

He was not a citizen of the land. He was not truly settled and familiar with his surroundings. Yet, he dwelt there; he considered it home. He did not return to his birthplace of Ur Kasdim to bury Sarah, or to Haran where they had settled for many years. He chose Hebron, and in Genesis 23:4 he referred to himself as a Ger Toshav, a resident alien, there. A stranger. A dweller. Someone who feels at home even if others treat him as an outsider. Abraham remarkably identifies himself as a Ger Toshav. The Hittites, even more remarkably, welcome him in with open arms, offering him land before Abraham insists on buying it.

I have my opinions about the President using executive orders to change policy. I also have my opinions about the United States Congress doing its best to never pass any legislation. Regardless of how immigration reform is passed, I think it is important that we remember that our patriarch Abraham referred to himself as a Ger Toshav, as a resident alien. We cannot ignore, neglect, or dehumanize the Ger Toshav among us.

We are commanded to welcome the stranger more times in the Torah than any other commandment. With each command, we are reminded that we were once strangers in a strange land. That is true for the Jewish people. That is also true for American society. The beauty of America is that it is a country full of immigrants, a melting pot of different ethnicities, races, religions, and cultures, each coming to this country with a belief that it would bring about new opportunities. We were each once a Ger Toshav. In some ways, we all still are. Just as the Hittites did with Abraham, we have a responsibility as Americans to welcome in those immigrants in our midst, who are a part of our culture, our society, and our workforce, regardless of how they arrived in this country.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

War & Peace

Like many of you, I enjoyed my Memorial Day weekend. I appreciated the long weekend to spend with family and friends. I spent Memorial Day weekend, like many of you on the beach and at the pool, lounging in the sun, and grilling burgers and hot dogs. Yet, this was a completely different experience from how Israelis observe Memorial Day.

I remember how I spent my first Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, while living in Israel. Walking down the street, I stopped in silence, as did all other pedestrians, just as those in their cars pulled over and got out. A siren blared throughout the nation, acknowledging those who have fallen, protecting their land and their people. Here too, on Memorial Day we honor those who have done the same, yet as Americans, Memorial Day has turned into the unofficial start of summer, an excuse to jump in the pool and have a barbeque. Let us not forget the reason for this day though, honoring those who have served.

soldier FlagSo too, that is the job of Department of Veterans Affairs: to honor those who have served. The VA serves those who served in World War II and the Korean War, as well as those who spent the past decade fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and throughout the world. The role of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is to honor veterans and take care of them. They have failed.

On Friday afternoon, Secretary of Veteran Affairs, Eric Shinseki, met with President Obama at the White House and handed in his resignation. Shinseki said he did so because he didn’t want to be a distraction. He did so following Democratic and Republican congressional leaders calling for such an action. It was reported in November that there have been military veterans dying needlessly at VA hospitals because of long waits and delayed care. The truth is problems with the VA and long waits date back decades, but this issue was brought back under the microscope last month when it was reported that a Phoenix VA facility used secret waiting lists, to cover up the significant problem. The latest report about the VA suggested a link between employee bonuses and covering up wait times at VA hospitals. It is clear that Shinseki needed to resign. What such a resignation doesn’t do though is fix a system, and fix a culture, in which we neglect those who have risked their lives, or in the case of Memorial Day, fallen, protecting our freedom.

Last week, we began reading the book of Numbers, Sefer Bamidbar, and in the very beginning of the book, we have a census taken to prepare for an army. Moses is counting soldiers. The Torah portion Bamidbar also lists where each tribe should stand, a mention of military formations.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Naso, which concludes with the most well-known blessing of our text. We read in Birkat Kohanim the blessing of all blessings.

I want to focus on the last words of the blessing:

 V’yasem Lecha Shalom. May God grant you peace. 

We begin with blessings of of praise and protection, of happiness and grace. But we conclude with a blessing, with a prayer, for peace. That is what he hope for. That is what we strive for. So how is it possible that the book of Bamidbar begins with assembling the Israelites’ military preparing for battle, and yet, only one Torah portion leader, only a few chapters later, we pray for peace. How can we focus on the military, preparing for battle, and immediately after, pray for peace?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, emphasized that we live in a world of polarities: the fixed and the spontaneous, the joy and the sorrow, the celebrations and the periods of mourning. So too, we cannot experience peace, appreciate peace, and truly pray for peace, without knowing the reality of violence, of battle, of war. We do not pray for war. We do not run into battle. We fight when we must. As Golda Meir once said: We do not rejoice in military victories.

We praise God for survival, but we do not revel in the reality of war, be that as Jews, as Americans, as humanity. Rather, even at times of war, even as soldiers throughout the world work to protect us, we strive to fulfill Isaiah’s prophetic vision: that we will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. We pray for the time when we will have no need for weapons, we will leave in harmony.

Yet until that day is achieved, as long as we as a nation and as a people count the heads of young men and women, to prepare for battle, as long as we set up military formations, as long as we send our young men and women to the four corners of this earth, we must protect them when they return.

The blessing of “May God bless you and Keep you,” is not just when one is sent off into battle, but rather when veterans return home. May we protect them. May we give them the services that they need. May we ensure their safety, security, and health, just as they have fought for ours. And may the sirens in our hearts and souls blare, as we remember the lives lost. As we go about living our lives as our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, continue to strive to keep us safe, stationed here and abroad, may we always remember that it is our job to fulfill God’s blessings, it is our task to make such prayers a reality. It is our job to bring peace to this world. May we always mourn those fallen and properly take care of veterans when they return home, but may we also fulfill God’s promise:  V’yasem lecha Shalom. May God grant you peace. May God grant all of us peace. And let us say: Amen.

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What it Means to Become a Bar Mitzvah

I occasionally share on my blog the speeches, reflections, and divrei Torah that B’nai Mitzvah share with our congregation. I wanted to share the speech and words of Torah that a recent Bar Mitzvah shared with our congregation and community.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

What it Means to Become a Bar Mitzvah 

By Noah

Shabbat Shalom. As I stand up here celebrating becoming a bar mitzvah, I reflect on what exactly that means to me. To become a Bar Mitzvah, a son of God’s commandments, is to start acting like a Jewish adult, accepting responsibility, and serving as one of God’s messengers in this world. It means giving food to the poor, visiting the sick, standing up for all people, and fighting for civil rights and human rights.

It’s not right to just let someone bully another person so we must stand up for someone being treated unfairly. As a Bar Mitzvah, I will march in civil rights and justice marches and give money to organizations that fight for civil rights for all because I’ve experienced this struggle. My moms are gay and they shouldn’t be treated any different from any other person because of that. I just turned 13 years old and yet, it was only a few months ago that my moms were finally able to get married. We traveled to New York for their wedding because they couldn’t even get married in our home state, because IT’S NOT LEGAL IN FLORIDA.

I think it’s unfair that my moms are treated differently. If we truly take responsibility for all and stand up for them, then we need to be able to celebrate that we are all the same, made in God’s image, instead of being divided by how we are different.

In this week’s Torah portion, parashat Naso, we find a number of things. It begins with the requirements to take a census of select groups and clans of the people of Israel. It also mentions the Nazirites vow. But chapter 6 of the book of numbers concludes with what is likely the most famous of all blessings mentioned in the Torah:

May the lord bless you and keep you. May the lord deal kindly and graciously with you. May the Lord bestow God’s favor upon you and grant you peace.

This blessing, which is really three blessings rolled into one, is Birkat Kohanim, the priestly benediction. This blessing is a blessing that Moses tells Aaron to bless the people of Israel with. In fact the Kohanim chant this blessing to the entire congregation while standing on the bimah on the high holidays. It’s also known as the parental blessing because parents say this blessing to their children every Friday night on Shabbat.

This blessing is a blessing in which we pray for God to keep us safe. We pray for God to be kind to us and for us, as God’s messengers, to be kind to others. And finally, we pray for peace because knowing that we look out for the safety of others just as God looks out to us, and knowing that we must be kind to others just as we pray God is kind to us, we can bring peace to this world and peace in our lives. A blessing of peace, security, and grace is a blessing in which we stand up for everybody.

Judaism — and faith in general — is not just about offering blessings. It’s about making the promise of blessing a reality. We don’t just sit around and wait for God to act. We act.

It is our job to be the voice to those who are silent to stand up for the rights of all to ensure the protection God promises. That’s why I believe everybody should have equal rights. That’s why we must fight for the rights of all and specifically I fight for the rights of my two mothers. It is my obligation as a bar mitzvah — and our obligation as the Jewish community. We pray for peace but we work for peace: for peace in our lives, peace in this community, and peace in this world.

As a Bar Mitzvah, son of commandments which takes responsibility for my actions and the actions of others, it is my job, it is all of our jobs, to make this blessing a reality. So as Jews and as B’nai Mitzvah, children of God’s commandments, let’s not only ask for God’s blessings, but let’s recognize the blessings in our own lives and make this blessing, the priestly benediction, a reality.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Holiness of Brokenness

There are conversations that have been going on in our community, our city, and our country for too long, but until now, these conversations have been kept to a mumbled whisper. These are conversations in which we want to share our brokenness with the world, but instead we keep it hidden. We keep it hidden because we think we are alone. But we are not. Mental illness impacts your family. Mental illness impacts my family. It affects us all.

And when we don’t discuss it, when we don’t talk about it, when we don’t offer help and support, especially in a sacred community, then the unthinkable happens, then mental illness leads to loss. According to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, of Florida’s 18.3 million residents, over 660,000 adults and 181,000 children live with serious mental illness. In the state of Florida alone last year there were over 3,000 deaths by suicide, which is almost always the result of untreated or under-treated serious mental illness. That is more than 8 a day in the state. As a result of the lack of mental health awareness, care, and treatment, Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in our country, and rising quickly.

We don’t talk a lot about mental illness in my family, even though I have loved ones who have suffered and do suffer from such an illness. Part of it is because of the stigma attached to such illness. I’m sure such a stigma has led many of us to not discuss the mental illness that we or our own loved ones suffer from. That stigma remains. That stigma remains because of ignorance. That stigma remains because of fear.

MentalIllnessBut it also remains because we don’t talk about it. And when we don’t talk about it, it goes untreated. We do not hesitate to discuss the physical ailments family members suffer from, the surgeries we are recovering from, or the cancer we are fighting. Those are acceptable to talk about. For some reason, mental health and mental illness is not.

For that reason, two organizations in our city that the Jacksonville Jewish Center is a part of have taken it upon themselves to increase mental health awareness and mental health services in this city.

Florida’s public mental health system provides services to only 26% of adults who live with serious mental illness and the statistics of just a couple of years ago suggest that Florida spent just $38 per capital on mental health agency services. In fact, Florida is ranked 49th out of all 50 states in the federal funding it receives for mental health services and Duval County receives the least amount of funding among all counties in the state.

JCCI, Jacksonville Community Council, in which our congregation participates, focuses on Engaging People for Community Change. Their latest inquiry, entitled “Unlocking the Pieces: Community Mental Health in Jacksonville” will examine the prevalence of emotional and behavioral disorders as well as mental illness in Northeast Florida and develop community-wide recommendations for system change. ICARE, the Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation, and Empowerment, the social justice organization that our congregation is also a part of, has a similar mission this year. At the Community Problems Assembly a couple of months ago, representatives from our congregation were present with dozens of other congregations to decide what the most pressing needs of our city were and overwhelmingly chose mental health and mental illness as the issue we must address.

We must remove the stigma. We must embrace the brokenness of ourselves and of our loved ones. We must be okay with carrying that brokenness with us. For that brokenness is a part of us and a part of who we as a community are. For that brokenness is holy.

Mental illness does not discriminate. It affects every race, ethnicity, gender, language, and religion. According to the US Center for Mental Health Services, at any given moment more than 48 million Americans are suffering from “diagnosable” mental illness. Many more are suffering and go undiagnosed. It is our job as a sacred community to rid our community, and our country, of this stigma. For each of us, even with the brokenness that we sometimes carry, are made in God’s image and are worthy in the eyes of God. Removing the stigma can allow us to open our doors, our arms, and our hearts and be supportive, allowing our loved ones to get the treatment that they need.

This past week, we read the Torah portion Parashat Ki Tissa. In it, we learn that the Israelites built the Egel Zahav, the Golden Calf. They got tired of waiting for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai. When Moses finally came near the people’s encampment with tablets in hand and saw the calf and the dancing, he shattered the tablets at the foot of the mountain.

Most assume that Moses hurled these tablets out of anger. I want to suggest a different explanation.The tablets were heavy, too heavy to carry. Moses didn’t carry the heavy stone tablets alone. Rather, because he carried them in his heart, they lifted him up and carried him. He was willing to take the burden of God’s word on his shoulders because he believed that this was a burden that the entire community was carrying. They broke when he saw the Israelites dancing around the idol because he felt alone. When he realized he was alone, that this was a burden he was holding on to all by himself, they shattered. It was too much to bear without the support of community.

We all have our burdens, our challenges, to carry. When we carry them alone and feel we cannot share them with community, when we are embarrassed to share them because of ignorance and fear, when we worry about not being embraced or accepted, then those burdens, like the tablets of the covenant, turn to brokenness.

But that brokenness is just as much a part of who we are as our whole selves. For we read at the end of the Torah portion, in Exodus 34:4, that

Vayifsol shenei luchot avanim karishonim.

That Moses carved two new tablets of stone, just like the first. He ascended Mount Sinai again with stone tablets in hand and inscribed God’s word on to them.

Yet, we learn that when the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, was eventually completed, the two sets of tablets both rested in the Holy Ark. The brokenness displayed alongside that which was whole, for both are holy and both are worthy in the eyes of God. The darker, more challenging parts of our identities and who we are and the pleasant and joyful demeanors are both holy.

We cannot hide the brokenness. We cannot brush it under the rug, we cannot pretend it isn’t happening. We cannot pretend that mental illness does not exist. Rather, we understand that those who suffer from mental illness are still sacred and holy. We care for them and we reach out, in the same way we do for any other illness.

Moses didn’t throw the shattered pebbles of sacred text away. Rather, he understood the holiness of brokenness. And while we cannot hide the brokenness, we also must do our best, as community, to prevent such shattering. Moses shattered the tablets because he felt alone. There was no place for him. There was no outlet. There was no help. There was no support. We must be that support. When those among us – our family, friends, members of our community – fear that life is broken, we must be that outlet.

As a synagogue, when we pray for healing in the Mi Sheberach prayer, we must understand that we are not only praying for recovery of bodily harm and physical ailments, but also for strength and stability from mental illness. We must continue to use our communication to inform the community about the work of JCCI, ICARE, and other community endeavors that strive to make mental health care more accessible. We must open up our synagogue building to offer support groups for those suffering from serious mental illness as well as for family members and caregivers of those who suffer from mental illness.

Finally, and most importantly, we must teach, preach, and recognize that no matter what illness – physical or mental – that we suffer from, we each still have the Divine spark within us. There is a place for each of us, at times when we are feel broken and times when we feel whole, in our holy ark, in our sacred community. May it always be so.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

6 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized