Tag Archives: Tzedek

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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Bitter Waters and Bottled Water: Lessons of Flint, Charity, and Justice

This article was originally published on January 31, 2016, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here

Times of Israel

I’ve always been annoyed by the actions of the Israelites after they were freed from Egypt. I’d roll my eyes at their childish and immature behavior. How is it possible that they could complain so quickly after experiencing the miracle of the freedom, so quickly after witnessing the waters part? They complained about not having enough water, about the waters of Marah being too bitter to drink:

They came to Marah, but they could not drink the waters of Marah because they were too bitter (Ex. 15:23).

Too bitter?! I used to scoffed as I read this narrative. Deal with it. Stop complaining. The water is fine. After all, you’re finally free. Drink whatever is put in front of you. But now I get it. You aren’t really free if you don’t have water to drink. You aren’t really free if only bitter water is provided for you. Because that bitterness – that unclean water – still reeks of oppression and discrimination.

I’ve watched the news over the past several weeks in disbelief as Flint, Michigan, an entire city of 100,000 has been drinking toxic and poisonous water. What is scary is that while we were made aware of this by the national media a few weeks ago, the people of Flint have been consuming this lead-poisoned water for over two years. This isn’t a third world country. This is happening in America, where we spend seven dollars on a latte, and yet, government officials try to cut costs by poisoning a city. The wealthy legislators cut costs that only impacted the poor city of Flint, where 41% of the city live below the poverty line, where the majority of residents are black. They did so and claimed that the water was fine to drink, but brought in bottled purified water for all state officials who worked in the city.

I received a letter last week from Mayor Ras Baraka, mayor of neighboring city of Newark. Quoting Dr. King, he said, “the time is always right to do what is right.” Mayor Baraka explained that Newark, along with Paterson and Jersey City, will be spending the next two weeks collecting bottles of water to be delivered to residents of Flint. We at Congregation Beth El, like so many other Jewish communities, accept the call to pursue justice and decided that we too would collect bottles of water and we continue to do so. We are committed to donating because we cannot stand idly by. We are committed to donating because we are committed to fulfilling the words of Deuteronomy 15:7, to not closing our hands or our hearts to those in need.

bottled water.pngYet, after announcing that we were going to be collecting bottles of water, I, like many, read Michael Moore’s letter that had gone viral. The famous documentary film maker who is from Flint, Michigan wrote: “Don’t send us bottles of water. Instead, join us in revolt.” Some questioned if we should be collecting bottles of water at all. I understand Moore’s point and I agree with him. He points out that with 100,000 residents in Flint, we’d have to send roughly 200 bottles per day per person to Flint to meet their essential needs for cooking, bathing, washing clothes, doing dishes, and of course, drinking. That is roughly 20 million bottles per day! He also reminds us in his letter that the damage is done. The neurological damage done to the children of this city is irreversible. Stopping to drink the water now won’t change that damage.

20 million bottles of water per day seems impossible – and there are environmental challenges to that many bottles of water. I agree with him that sending bottles of water doesn’t solve all the problem and Michael Moore knows the city a lot better than I do. I agree that sending bottles of water is a short-term fix. But just because something is a short-term fix, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act. Food pantries are also short-term solutions and don’t solve hunger. Yet, we still collect donations. Shelters are a short-term fix and don’t solve homelessness. Yet, we still volunteer. In fact, charity – Tzedakah – is a short term fix. I get all that. But what about the 100,000 residents of Flint who need water until, or if, this problem is resolved? What about the 100,000 residents of Flint who need water until they are evacuated by FEMA? What about the 100,000 people in Flint who, despite the damage that has already been done, still need clean water to drink?

Moore is suggesting that we focus our time on holding the government accountable and making sure those who did this are brought to justice. I agree that we can’t just send water and feel good about ourselves, and then ignore the dire needs of this city. But I refuse to not try to provide clean water – no matter the damage already caused – for a city. We can still revolt and fight for justice while providing water. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. There is a difference between charity and justice. We should not and cannot confuse the two. We cannot only give charity. We must also fight for justice. But we cannot forget the need to do charity while we are fighting for justice. That is the reason that we have two biblical commands: Deuteronomy 15:4, to build a just society, and Deuteronomy 15:7, to help those in need as well strive for justice. We must do both.

The actions of Jethro, the High Priest of Midian, in our biblical narrative are some of the most important actions in the Torah. He is there alongside Moses and the Israelites as they receive the Ten Commandments, representing the Divine law. But juxtaposed to this event is Jethro – an outsider of sorts – who tells Moses that a court system, a justice system, must be set up. We read:

This thing that you are doing is not good. You will wear yourself out, and this people that are with you as well. For this task, this burden, is too heavy for you, and you cannot do it alone (Ex. 18:17-18).

Jethro is doing more than just helping Moses find the proper work-life balance. He is doing more than making sure Moses isn’t micromanaging. He is acknowledging that as the Israelites are receiving law, law is not set in stone. Law does not always equal justice.

Dr. King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“…there are two types of laws: There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws… ‘How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.”

Just because something is legal, that doesn’t mean it is just. Jethro teaches that we must wrestle with law, struggle with the legal system, and make sure that laws are just for all. That is the justice system that he set up. That is the justice system that we still seek. So yes, Michael Moore, we should revolt. We should pursue justice. We should hold Governor Snyder and the state officials of Michigan accountable for poisoning an entire city. But we have an obligation to give charity, to give Tzedakah, while we fight for Tzedek. We have an obligation to throw that metaphorical branch into the bitter waters to make them sweet. We have an obligation to provide clean, drinkable water, to every resident of this country. And we have an obligation to continue to fight for justice while we do so.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


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Jewish Institutions Should Preach Social Justice From the Pulpit

This article was originally published on November 11, 2015 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

HaaretzSocial Justice is a central tenet of Judaism. Why, then, are rabbis and synagogues afraid to broach it?

Throughout my studies in rabbinical school, I was taught to not preach politics from the pulpit. The reasoning for this was backed up by the regulations of America’s Internal Revenue Service, which say houses of worship and not-for-profit organizations that receive tax-exempt status are “prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
These regulations have been misinterpreted as meaning we, religious leaders, cannot talk about any issue that’s deemed “political.” Yet all key issues facing American society are addressed by elected officials. And when they are, they are perceived to have become “political.” So, in turn, we conclude that we can’t talk about them for fear of mixing politics and religion.

This logic is completely misguided.

The fact that politicians address issues does not inherently make these issues “political,” and does not automatically bar rabbis and synagogues from taking a stand.

So why do these institutions really shy away from such issues? For fear of being controversial or labeled in an unpalatable way.

These communities are missing an opportunity to connect the values we, Jewish leaders, teach our children and the lessons of Torah we teach each Shabbat to the world that we live in.

So many issues that I have spoken about from the pulpit – including marriage equality, systemic racism, gun violence, prison reform, refugee crises, and modern day slavery – are anything but political. These are social justice issues.
There may be disagreements on how we as Jews address these issues or how we as Americans guided by Jewish ethics and values address these issues, and disagreement is healthy. But there can be no disagreement regarding our need as rabbis to speak about issues of social justice and address these issues with our congregations.

From November 13 to 17, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the congregational arm of the American Jewish community’s Conservative movement, will be hosting its biennial convention in the Chicago-area. This convention, labeled “Shape the Center,” is an opportunity for Conservative congregations and institutions to shape their future and rethink their purpose. Clergy, Jewish professionals, and lay leaders will be coming together during Shabbat and the convention that follows to discuss many issues facing the American Jewish community, in hopes to reshape their visions and to align their missions with the needs of its members.

Among the many presentations at the convention, I will be leading a discussion about putting social justice at the center of our communities, where I will emphasize the need to walk the path of the prophets. Judaism will not survive, let alone thrive, if we solely concern ourselves with the heady debates of the rabbinic tradition and ignore the world in which we live. The prophetic texts of the Bible teach us that Judaism and Jewish values is not just about our own personal actions; it is about impacting our society and our world.

It was Amos who said “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; That pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, and turn aside the way of the humble” (Amos 2:6-7). It was Jeremiah was said: “Execute ye justice and righteousness … do no wrong, do no violence, to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood in this place” (Jer. 22:3). It is Isaiah who challenged: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loosen the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him” (Is. 58:6-7).

Why are we so scared to share how Judaism has relevant lessons to teach us about facing the issues facing our society? Why are we afraid to be guided by the values of our tradition to change the world around us?

When looking at the now well-documented, inspected and over-analyzed Pew Study on the American Jewish community of 2013, we find that an overwhelming 69 percent of the community believe that living an ethical life is essential to their sense of Jewishness, and 56 percent add that being Jewish means working for justice and equality. If our goal in shaping our institutions is to create entry points for engagement, we should embrace the connection many in our communities make between Judaism and social justice.

Spiritual experience must be more than just Shabbat services. It must be rallies and public actions, too. Education must be more than just religious school and preschool. It must be protests and letter-writing campaigns to elected officials. We must not only assemble in our buildings for prayer. We must assemble on the streets, and in front of town halls and statehouses. We must see social justice as a core part of our congregations, and a core part of our Jewish identities.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


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Praying with our Feet: Teaching Children to Fight for Human Rights

Today, December 10th, is the  annual International Human Rights Day, dating back to 1950 when the United Nations General Assembly voted for such a day to bring to the attention ‘of the peoples of the world’ the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We don’t simply acknowledge Human Rights Day. We don’t just celebrate Human Rights. We act. I previously mentioned how the Jacksonville Jewish Center celebrated Human Rights this past Shabbat, as part of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights’ Human Rights Shabbat. More Impactful though then our communal Shabbat experience was participating in an action for social justice and Human Rights with the students of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School on Friday, December 6th, in preparation for International Human Rights Day.

Standing Up for Human Rights

Standing Up for Human Rights

Every Friday afternoon, the students of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School Middle School end their week with a “mitzvah project,” a volunteer activity that emphasizes the Jewish imperative to participate in acts of social action and social justice. An important lesson for our Middle School students is understanding the difference between social action and social justice, understanding the difference between helping those in need by providing them with something, and advocating for a societal change and policy shift to fulfill God’s demand in Deuteronomy 15:4 that “there shall be no needy.” Both are necessary and equally important if we are to be God’s partners in creation.

I spent this past year sharing with these students my previous experiences as part of a T’ruah rabbinic delegation to Immakolee, Florida. Immakolee, approximately four hours from Jacksonville, is home to America’s tomato fields. A large percentage of the fresh tomatoes we eat come from the southwestern part of our state. Upon arriving with other rabbis to Immakolee, I learned about the horrors that migrant workers in the fields have previously dealt with: there have been instances in which the farmworkers were enslaved to growers through coercion, force, assault, fraud, and debt. The Coalition of Immakolee Workers (CIW) has worked hard to put an end to such practices in surrounding tomato fields through the Fair Food Program. Having corporations commit to participating in the FFP is a sign that they too are committed to human rights and that their produce is just. As CIW explains, slavery is the extreme end of a continuum of abusive and exploitative labor practices. The Fair Food Program strives to eradicate slavery and such exploitative practices from our midst.

The top five fast-food companies in the nation are: McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s. All but Wendy’s have signed on to participate in the Fair Food Program. Wendy’s has not only refused to sign on; they have refused to sit down with the CIW and hear about the exploitative practices that they are supporting by continuing to buy such tomatoes. After spending several months learning about the Coalition of Immakolee Workers and the plight of the migrant workers in these tomato fields, our students took action to make a change.

Our students discussed the importance of participating in such an action. Although Wendy’s is not kosher and thus, it is not a restaurant that we as an institution would eat in, it is a corporation that is a staple of our nation. Furthermore, it is a restaurant that stands for quality, respect, and doing the right thing. If they are not taking a stand for human rights, then we must.

Skyping with CIW

Skyping with CIW

Our action began by skyping with representatives from CIW ally, Interfaith Action. Such a conversation (even if it was over the internet) empowered our students and gave context to the action they were to participate in.

We then discussed talking points and made posters and signs to prepare for our trip to a local Wendy’s. We would never put our students in a dangerous situation. We ensured that there was proper parental and staff supervision. Additionally, we also called the restaurant ahead of time. Our task was not to be a menace. Our task was to raise awareness and engage in meaningful conversations to create change. The manager of the restaurant was aware that we were coming and was happy to meet with us and hear our students express their concerns about the exploitation of workers in Florida tomato fields. After explaining to the manager the need for Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program, our students handed her signed letters from T’ruah, urging her to pass the letters along to her bosses and the corporate office. Our voices were heard and she assured us that she would speak to the corporate office and share our concerns.

We then left and gathered our posters and signs to raise awareness and take action outside of the restaurant. The manager was also

Giving the Wendy's Manager our Letters

Giving the Wendy’s Manager our Letters

aware that we would be participating in such an action outside the store and welcomed it, emphasizing our right to educate and our freedom of speech and expression. As cars and individuals passed by, we made them aware of the Fair Food Program and the need for Wendy’s to join! Our students felt inspired. As a rabbi, I was even more inspired, watching them take action, prepared to fight for the rights – for the Human Rights – of other individuals. This is a cause that may not have directly affected them, but it very much did because they understood that we are each made in God’s image so our lives are all sacred and interconnected. This was just one afternoon and one action, but it was an afternoon that inspired me, as I now believe that these Middle School students – these future leaders of the Jewish community – will continue to not just learn of our tradition, but also live the ethics and values of our tradition and ensure equality and Human Rights for all.

Taking Action

Taking Action

The American Jewish community has stood up for the Human Rights of others for as long as we’ve been a part of this country. Taking such a stand in our community is often highlighted by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery during the Civil Rights Movement. Taking a stand and participating in social justice issues is what it means to be a Jew. Rabbi Heschel famously shared that when he was marching with Dr. King, he was “praying with his feet.” On Friday afternoon, our Middle School students took a stand for Human Rights and prayed with their feet.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, and the Torah: Standing Up for Human Rights

Celebrating Human Rights and mourning a champion of Human Rights.

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

That is our experience. This past Shabbat, the Jacksonville Jewish Center observed Human Rights Shabbat, sponsored and organized by T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and joined over 150 congregations to participate in this special Shabbat immediately prior to the December 10th recognition of International Human Rights Day. So too, this past Shabbat, we mourned as the world lost a prophet. Nelson Mandela, a champion of Human Rights, died at the age of 95. He was a South African anti-apartheid politician who served as President of South Africa from 1994-199, following 27-years in prison because of his fight for equality. He was the first black South African to be elected President and the first President elected in a fully representative election, one in which blacks in the country were allowed to vote. Fighting for Human Rights, he taught:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Nelson Mandela and Christo Brand

Nelson Mandela and Christo Brand

More remarkable to me than Mandela standing up for Human Rights, for his own rights, were those who eventually joined him in his fight: 18-year-old Christo Brand was a white prison guard at Robben Island, in charge of watching over prisoner Nelson Mandela. He believed the white man was superior and didn’t hesitate to share his pro-apartheid views. But throughout their relationship, Brand began to believe in the Human Rights that Mandela was fighting for. He developed a friendship with Mandela, smuggled him food while in prison, and transferred to Pollsmoor Prison when Mandela was moved there to continue to watch over him. And while it was truly revolutionary that Mandela’s prison guards were sitting in the front row for his 1994 inauguration, Mandela, once freed, would visit Brand in his home and play with his infant son. When Mandela retired from politics, his education fund awarded a scholarship to Brand’s now grown son, to study, and fight for Human Rights as well. Brand, the white prison guard, learned that it too was his responsibility to fight for the human rights of his friend, his brother.  

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks

So too in our country, we remembered and acknowledged taking a stand for Human Rights this past week as we marked the anniversary of the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man, because all the other seats on the bus were occupied, she was arrested on December 1st, 1955. This event set off a year-long boycott of public transportation among Montgomery’s African-American population, many of whom were regular commuters on public transportation. They carpooled, and often walked for long miles in sweltering heat and pouring rain. Rosa Parks refusal to give up her seat 58 years ago this week was the catalyst for such a boycott.

I am in awe of Parks’ courage and strength. Yet, I am also in awe of the courage of those who joined with her and supported the bus boycott. Rabbi Seymour Atlas served Montgomery’s Agudath Israel Congregation during the 1950’s. A photo appeared in Life Magazine with Rabbi Atlas standing side-by-side with an African-American peer who was participating in the boycott. Immediately following that, he gave a Shabbat sermon suggesting that the Jewish community as a whole participate in the Montgomery bus boycott and refrain from using public transportation.

I completely understand why he would do so. After all, I always learned that the Jewish community was immensely involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, this was Montgomery, where the city as a whole, including the vast majority of its Jewish community, supported segregation. Congregants at Agudath Israel wanted Rabbi Atlas to ask Life Magazine to retract the picture taken of him, calling it an error. He refused. And when he publicly supported the bus boycott, he was relieved of his duties as rabbi at Agudath Israel. Yet, that too did not stop him. He continued to be involved in the Civil Rights Movement. He continued to support the bus boycott. He continued to take a stand on an issue that did not directly affect him, but affected him simply because he is human, because Rosa Parks was his sister. He continued to take a stand because the issue of Civil Rights was really an issue of Human Rights.

We recognize the importance of taking a stand for Human Rights, taking a stand, not just for us, but for others as well. For taking a stand for others is taking a stand for ourselves because all of our lives are interwoven and connected.

A successful right hand man of Pharaoh, Joseph has come a long way from being picked on and bullied by his siblings, being thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, and sent in prison. Now that he controls the wealth and crops, his brothers travel to Egypt and approach him, asking for food during the famine. We find at the end of Parashat Mikketz that after being bullied in his youth, Joseph becomes the bully. He places a goblet in younger brother Benjamin’s knapsack, only to find it in there moments later and accuse him of stealing it. Joseph demands that Benjamin become his slave in return while the other brothers may return to Canaan.

The beginning of  Parashat Va-yiggash, which the Jewish community read this past Shabbat, is the reason we do what we do when it comes to standing up for Human Rights. Judah, the same brother who suggested selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites only chapters ago, takes a stand. He calls out to Joseph and demands that Joseph enslave him instead of Benjamin. He cannot live a free life if his brother is not free. He cannot appreciate his rights if his brother’s rights are taken from him.

Instead of just groveling, Judah takes a stand. How could he return without his brother?! Who is he without his brother?! He could not imagine living life to the fullest while his brother is enslaved. So he – who is free and is not being penalized at all – takes a stand for Benjamin. He’s willing to sacrifice himself for another. He’s willing to take a stand for his brother.

In fact, standing up for Human Rights is how the Torah portion begins: Va’Yiggash Alav Yehudah. And Judah went  up to Joseph. We refer to the parasha by this first word: Va’Yiggash: and Judah went up. And Judah stood up. And Judah took a stand. But as I learned from my friend and teacher Yael Hammerman, the Hasidic Rabbi the Sfat Emet suggests that this means something more: he translates this as “And Judah came close to him,” and clarifies that the “him” is not only Joseph. Judah came close to himself, came close to Benjamin whose rights he was fighting for, for Benjamin’s rights were also Judah’s rights, and in this courageous act of taking a stand, he also came close to God.

While the Jewish people are called the Children of Israel (of Jacob, Judah’s father) in the Torah, the term, Jewish, and Judaism, comes from the fact that we are the People of Judah. We settled in the land of Judea, represented by the strong lion of Judah. Thus, to identify as the Jewish people, the people of Judah, is to proudly declare that we are a people who stand up for Human Rights.

There are so many areas where we must continue to fight for Human Rights. They happen in every corner of the world, and they happen in our own backyard. All we have to do is open up the newspaper, and be willing to open up our eyes, to realize that we have a responsibility to take a stand for the rights of another. We must be willing to take a stand for that is what our tradition teaches us, and urges us, to do. Find your cause. Find your fight. Step up. Be a voice for the silent and stand up tall for the downtrodden.

The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: All Human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Or to put it more simply, we are all, BTzelem Elohim, made in the Image of God.

As a congregation and community, we did not just observe Human Rights Shabbat. We celebrated Human Rights Shabbat. We celebrated our proud history of taking a stand for Human Rights. We celebrated being a voice for morality.

In the spirit of Human Rights leaders Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks, may their memories be for a blessing, but also in the spirit of Christo Brand – Mandela’s prison guard who became his supporter and friend – and in the spirit of Rabbi Seymour Atlas – who lost his job because he stood up for what was right – let us stand up for justice and Human Rights. Let us participate in an act that is so engrained in our faith and tradition. Let us, like Judah, stand up for the rights of others, for we are all brothers and sisters. In doing so, we bring ourselves closer to all of humanity, we bring ourselves closer to ourselves, and we bring ourselves closer to God.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Rosh Hashanah Sermon Now Available

Shanah Tovah! I hope you had a spiritually meaningful and uplifting Rosh Hashanah and take the opportunity to spend these Aseret Yamei Teshuvah, these Ten Days of Repentance reflecting, asking for forgiveness, and going out of your way to forgive. Our goal is for all of us to enter Yom Kippur with a clean slate and make great changes in the year ahead. My sermon from the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, entitled Justice Renewed, is now available. You can read the PDF: Rosh Hashanah Day Two 5774 – Justice Renewed or listen to the audio file here. Additionally, both are available on the Sermon Page of this blog. The text of the sermon is below:

Justice Renewed

My grandfather is quite the story teller. Like most grandfathers when he tells a story the television goes off, the heads turn towards him, he grabs the attention of the entire room, and his grandchildren listen with delight. While at least the first time he tells the story. Also, like most grandfathers, my Pop-Pop tends to retell stories. We still listen. I listen with amazement. I listen with awe.

My favorite story of his takes place in the early days of his career as a traveling salesman. While living in Rochester, New York, he would regularly leave my bubbe and mother to drive up and down the east coast, selling siding. He was in the home improvement business – first it was selling siding, then decks, then windows, but I think he was still selling siding at the time. He would stay at a motel for weeks at a time while in an area. While selling siding in the deep south, he befriended many of the hotel employees and elevator operators, many of whom happened to be African-American. Staying in town soon before an upcoming election, he learned that none of them were registered to vote. He organized after-hour meetings in his hotel room to help them register to vote… that was until he received threatening phone calls from the Ku Klux Klan.

He eventually returned to his family in Rochester and maybe the fear of burning crosses on the front lawn caused him to return earlier than anticipated. Still, when his new friends at the hotel asked him why he was helping them, complete strangers in a town that was far from his own home, he offered a simple answer: I am Jewish, he said.

PeaceAndJusticeImageI am Jewish. A powerful statement. An even more powerful explanation. Not about our belief in God, but about our belief in humanity. Not about personal practice or action, but about action towards others. Not about ethnicity, but about ethics. I am Jewish is the simple reason for Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. It is the reason for a voice of faith and a voice of reason in the fight for Marriage Equality. It is the reason we collect food to donate to the needy while fighting to end hunger and homeless. I am Jewish. It is the reason we do everything we do. It is the reason that Reform Rabbinical Seminary Hebrew Union College many years ago, while she was still living, awarded Rosa Parks an honorary doctorate for taking a stand by staying seated.

I am Jewish is the reason that the Jewish Theological Seminary — where I studied, where Rabbi Lubliner studied, where Hazzan Holzer studied, where Dr. Mitzmacher studied — last year honored Civil Rights Leader — and now Congressman — John Lewis for being a youth role model during the Civil Rights Movement for action through words rather than through violence.

In his speech at JTS commencement last year upon receiving his honorary degree, Representative Lewis charged the students to get into trouble. He said: “You must go out and find a way to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. You must play a role in helping to make our country, helping to make our world, a better place.”

Judaism puts specific emphasis on the 50th year of something. The Jubilee year, or the Yovel, is a time for celebration. It’s the 50th year of crop cycle. Seven represents completion – seven days of the week, seven times a partner circles around the other underneath the chuppah. So too, the seventh year in the land of Israel is the shemitah year, the sabbatical year. The land would not be tilled, indentured servants would be released.

After seven cycles of this seven year cycle — forty-nine years in total, we celebrate the fiftieth year, the Yovel, the Jubilee.

Last week marked a sort of Jubilee, the fiftieth anniversary of the famous March on Washington. At the time, this event was the largest organized rally in American history, and to this day, it still ranks as one of the largest rallies for human rights in our country’s short history.  The event was organized as a march for jobs and freedom, but what it was really a march for civil rights, for human rights, for God-given rights. Most estimate that between 200,000 and 300,000 peacefully assembled at the National Mall, culminating their march at the Lincoln Memorial where participants heard from civil rights leaders, and faith leaders, concluding with the lasting memory of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” Speech.

While Dr. King gets all the credit for his inspirational words, his vision, and his dream, it was the action of others, the actions of all, that made the march happen.

Bob Zellner was Field Secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. His father was in the Ku Klux Klan. His grandfather was in the Ku Klux Klan. He was organizing the largest to date march for equality. Hollywood celebrities showed support with the likes of Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte, James Garner, and Paul Newman in attendance.

Julian Bond, Co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee made a promise to his parents not to get arrested, not to go to jail because of these protests. He assured them that he was a pacifist, that this was a non-violent protest. Nan Orrock, now a state senator in Georgia attended the march, despite protests from her parents, despite the fact that she went to an all-white school in what was at the time the still segregated state of Georgia.

As previously mentioned, John Lewis, now Representative John Lewis, was Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He said that walking down Constitutional Ave, he witnessed all of America, “people from coming from all over the country to bear witness, to participate.

Many of the people were well dressed. It was like going to church or temple or synagogue,” he said. People were dressing up for worship for they were worshipping, for regardless of faith, they were participating in prayer, they were acting as God’s messengers in this world.

Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress, spoke immediately before Dr. King’s famous oratory. As a young rabbi in Germany he actively opposed and stood up to the rise of Nazi fascism. Then at the Lincoln Memorial he prayed that Shema Koleynu, that God hears our voices, but also said, acknowledging his own tribulations: “it is not simply sympathy and compassion for the black population of America that motivates us…It is a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience.”

Speaking at the Jubilee event, the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington, President Obama said that this was about more than just the African-American community. He said, “they marched and America became more free and more fair” and I would add more just, “not just for African-Americans, but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans, for Catholics, Jews and Muslims, for Gays, and for Americans with disabilities.” At it’s core, this March on Washington was truly about justice.

Our High holy Day Machzor explains that justice is the ultimate principle by which the world exists. The biblical standard of justice is always defined by the treatment of the poor, the weak, the powerless, the infirm, the unprotected. God’s care is especially directed towards the most vulnerable, and societies are judged by how they are treated. The lack of justice is the undoing of God’s creation.

This event, this March, ultimately was about justice, but at its core, it was a spiritual event. It was a spiritual experience. As Representative Lewis said, they were dressing up for worship. They were dressing up because they were worshipping; they were praying, God was present.

Bernice King, the late Martin Luther King Jr.’s youngest daughter, who was only a couple of months old during her father’s historic speech, spoke at this Jubilee event. I, along with Rabbi Lubliner and Hazzan Holzer, as well as other members of our city, heard her speak last year at Jacksonville’s annual Martin Luther King Day interfaith breakfast. When she spoke on the day of this Jubilee, one week ago, she reminded everyone:

Martin Luther King Jr. is often remembered as a freedom fighter for equal rights and for human rights. Most importantly though, he was a man of faith. He was a faith leader with the spirit of God — Ruach Elohim, as we call it in Judaism — and the faith community, she said, must continue to lead every movement for justice and equality.

Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Ari, the 16th century Jewish mystic, was teaching about Judaism’s movement towards justice 500 years ago. He taught that we are God’s partner in the creation of the world. The first to use the term Tikkun Olam, Repairing the World, he suggested that Adonai created humans to remedy an error in the Divine creation of this world. We were created to ensure the equality and justice that God hoped to create. We are created to act. So this morning, we act.

Our three pillars program this morning introduced us to the core Mishnaic teaching that the world rests on three pillars, on the pillar of Torah Study, on the pillar of Avodah, Prayer, and on the pillar of Gemilut Hasadim, Social Action and Social Justice. To suggest that these three pillars hold up this world means that each pillar is an integral part of this world; each pillar is an integral part of our faith. If we only focus on one and not the other, the world will collapse. Additionally, this message reminds us that these three pillars on which the world stands are of equal importance. Prayer is just as important as Torah study. Acts of Kindness and Justice are just as important as prayer and study. More striking, Prayer and Study are meaningless without Acts of Kindness and Justice. Even as we wrestle with God, even as we teach and learn Torah, with the pillar of Justice missing, the world will still collapse. Acts of Kindness, and Acts of Justice, are Acts of Torah study, rooted in the scriptural core of our faith. Acts of Kindness and Acts of Justice are Acts of Prayer and Worship, to use Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s metaphor, when we act, we pray with our feet. We did that on a small scale this morning through social action. We do that on the greater scale through social justice.

I was hesitant to share my vision, my belief for our need for justice, to pursue justice, even if our liturgy speaks of it, even if the words of rabbinic literature speak of it, even if Torah speaks of it. I thought twice because I fear – I know – that some think I speak about our need to do justice too much. I worried about pigeon-holing myself, constricting the Torah that I teach. I worried about being viewed as the rabbi who only speaks about our need to repair the world.

Then, I realized that this is why we do all that we do. Every single thing we do, every teaching of our tradition, every attempt to bring ourselves closer to God, every attempt to immerse ourselves in ritual, is meant to ignite a spark to act as the angels of God, the messengers of God, that we are. Every teaching of Torah, every spiritual experience, is meant to fuel the fire, so that that spark within us turns into a towering flame, like the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Flame above our ark, our Aron Kodesh, a towering flame to walk in God’s ways, and do God’s will.

I was worried that these thoughts would be seen as political or divisive. But then I said three simple words. Three words that my grandfather said to me. Three words that are the reason we do what we do. I AM JEWISH.

For if we do not care about repairing the world, if we do not care about making this world a better place, if we do not care about the rights of other, if we do not care about honoring God, through honoring God’s creatures, made in God’s image, if we do not care about justice and equality, then nothing else we do as Jews matters. So we get up. We stand up. We do, and we act. The new year is about renewal. It is about change – changing our ways and ridding ourselves of the apathy that too often exists.

The disturbing liturgy of the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer during the Musaf Amidah speaks of the reality of the injustices that surrounds us: Some will live and some will die. Some will live a long happy life while others will leave this world long before their time. Some will die of hunger and thirst; some will die of plague; some will be impoverished and some will be enriched; some will be brought low and some will be raised up. Some will feel at peace while others will live a life of trouble.

The liturgy speaks of the injustice that exists. Yet, we are also charged by this same liturgy to change that reality.

We recite: U’Teshuvah, U’Tefillah, U’Tzedakah Ma’avirim et-Roah Hagezerah. Despite the darkness of this world, despite the chaos that surrounds us, the injustice that is reality, we are taught that through Teshuvah, through Repentance, through Tefillah, through Connection with God, and through Tzedakah – not charity, but true justice – we can change the harsh reality.

The U’netaneh Tokef begs us to change ourselves and to change the world, to turn our world from a world of chaos to a world of calm. We spent the month of Elul doing Teshuvah. We spend the Chagim, the High Holy Days — and God-willing every day — making time for prayer. And we leave the sanctuary, the synagogue, inspired and charged to participate in true justice, to fulfill God’s promise.

God’s promise is heard in the prophetic charges in our Bible. We hear the demand of the prophet Micah, when he says: What does God require of us? To do justice, to love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

We hear the prayer of the prophet Amos: Let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Those words echoed off the marble pillars of the Lincoln Memorial when Reverend King preached them during his “I Have a Dream” speech fifty years ago. That was not his speech, that was his prayer. That was God’s word. According to King’s speechwriter, Clarence B. Jones, King’s speech was all set the night before. Sitting in his hotel room with seven advisors, his words were put on paper. The press was given advanced copies of his speech the morning of the March on Washington and it looked nothing like the speech he gave. It begins the same, with Reverend King carefully sticking to the script. However, after a brief moment of silence, Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who sang at the event earlier in the day, shouted to Dr. King, “tell ‘em about the dream.” Next thing you know, King pushed aside the text and shifted gears. The speechwriter leaned over to the person next to him and said: the people don’t know it yet, but they’re about to go to church. They’re about to go to synagogue. They’re about to go to services. In that dream, he quoted the words of Amos. He quoted the Psalmist. He quoted the prophet Isaiah.

Dr. King taught us that the arc of the moral universe bends towards Justice. But it does not bend on its own. We bend it. As Nehemiah, who was charged in our Tanakh with returning to Jerusalem, rebuilding the city and purifying the people, put it:

“The work is great and large, and we at times feel separated from one another. But when we hear the sounding of the shofar, the blasts of the shofar, we hear God. For God is on our side.” God is on the side of justice. So as we go ahead, in the new year,  as we pursue justice, as we pursue peace, let us keep one thought in our minds to guide us: I am Jewish. Shanah Tovah.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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