Tag Archives: Yom Kippur

Kol Nidre 5780: Children are Our Rainbow

Growing up, my family had an odd obsession: we would collect Noah’s arks. Anything that was Noah’s Ark related found in catalogues or at antique sales would end up in our home. To this day, the countertops of my parents’ kitchen covered with rainbow arches above miniature models of wooden boats, surrounded by parading animals, lined up two-by-two. I loved the story so much, I named my son after the biblical character. For my family, the story of Noah and his ark, was one about building a future, and a promise from God, a rainbow in the sky that we still see after every thunderstorm turns to sunshine, and a dove, complete with olive branch in beak, representing the possibility of peace.

This biblical narrative though is a troublesome one. Noah is called an Ish Tzadik Tamim haya b’dorotav, a righteous and simple person for his generation, the only person who God deems worth saving among a wicked generation. And so, he builds a lifesaving ark for himself and his family, and all animals that God created to ensure repopulation of the earth. But when God announces the imminent destruction of all humanity, Noah doesn’t flinch. He has a lifeboat – literally. He is safe. Throughout Torah, Abraham goes toe-to-toe with God in an attempt to save the innocent of Sodom and Gamora, cities where he did not reside. Moses stands up to God to defend the same Israelites that he spends most of his tenure as leader being critical of. But for Noah, he is only concerned with his own family and never thinks about the impact of his ambivalence or the world that he is left to live in after it was destroyed.

Approximately two million students from over 250 countries participated in a global climate school strike on Friday, September 20, ahead of the UN Climate Action Summit that took place days later. Coordinated by sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden, the strike was meant to gain attention to the issue, but also to make sure that young people on this planet, the ones whom we are leaving the earth to in this state, have a seat at the table and are part of the conversation. And the reality that we are leaving them is a scary one: hotter, drier weather in the Middle East has dried up the Tigris-Euphrates river basin; about 40% of the 10 million people who live in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta live below sea level, forcing the country’s President to announce that they will actually be moving the capital to higher ground; Miami and other coastal towns may not exist decades from now; droughts in California have caused water shortages and wildfires.

On this day where we admit our transgressions, my teacher and dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School, Rabbi Daniel Nevins writes: We were created amidst a clean and pure world, but now it is headed for destruction in our hands. Not on our own merits do we beseech You, Lord our God, for we have sinned, we have wasted, we have destroyed:  For the sin of filling the sea and land with filth and garbage;  For the sin of destroying forever species which in Your great mercy were saved from the flood;  And for the sin of laying bare the forests and habitats from which all creatures receive life.” Forgive us, Pardon us, Grant us Atonement.

I have a confession to make: I am not a very green person. Far from it actually. I use paper plates a lot because I hate doing the dishes. I often forget to separate out the recycling. When it was time to lease a new car, I went with the gas guzzling SUV instead of hybrid or electric models, because I was more interested in a third row with lots of leg room, not my carbon footprint. It’s not that I don’t care about protecting the planet. It’s more that I am unsure me doing anything can truly make a difference. Everything I’ve read suggests that we have passed the point of no return. After the forty-day-and-forty-night flood, there will be no rainbow in the sky.

Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University explains that a switch from plastic straws to paper straws alone won’t save the planet. He writes that, “focusing on individual choices around air travel and beef consumption  heightens the risk of losing sight of the gorilla in the room: civilization’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy and transport overall.”

On Yom Kippur, we pour our hearts out to God, not just admitting our mistakes, but we are meant to experience a spiritual death of sorts. And we make confessions as a community. Ashamnu. Bagadnu. Al Chet Shechatanu Lefanecha. Each statement is in the plural. We have sinned. We have transgressed. We have let this happen. We, together, have caused our communal death; we have brought this upon ourselves.

After all, when God gives responsibility of the utopian Eden to Adam and Eve, first God blesses them, and then says to them: be fruitful and multiply and fill the land. Then, v’chiv’shu’ha, and subdue it, Urdu bigdat Hayam, uv’of hashamayim, u’v’chol chaya haromeset al ha’aretz, and have dominion over the fish, and birds, and all mammals that roam the earth. Sforno, the Italian Rabbi and Biblical commentary of the 16th century explains that v’chiv’shu’ha is not a directive to conquer earth with muscular power, but to subdue it by means of humanity’s superior intellect. He understands Torah to mean that we must use our intelligence to protect earth. Our own intelligence, and courage, is what will save us.

Greta Thunberg first gained notoriety in August 2018 when she would stand outside the Swedish Parliament, then alone, holding up a sign that said “School Strike for Climate,” but through social media, her movement grew, launching a Fridays for the Future campaign, as well as this global school strike that some of our own children participated in just a couple of weeks ago. At her speech to the United Nations, she chastised world leaders:

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to me for hope? How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

But what gave Greta Thunberg hope that we can change was convincing her family to become vegan, convincing them to no longer travel by airplane. She realized that she could make a difference. She could change. She could save the world. We all can.

Al Gore, who has arguably become more influential and famous as an environmental hero than he ever was as Vice President, writes that he still has hope for the future. He says his hope “stems largely from the recent, unprecedented groundswell of youth activism that has raised public consciousness to new levels and is pushing political leaders to develop bold and ambitious ideas to confront this challenge. Harking back to the great social movements in history — youth activists are taking the lead.”

Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, of blessed memory, tells a story of a young child who cries out to God and declares that the world is such a mess. The child challenges God: Why don’t you send someone to change the world? God responds, I did send someone. I sent you. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubuvitcher Rebbe, taught: “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to complete. But if you only see what is wrong and what is ugly in the world, then it is you yourself that needs to repair.” It is our job now to repair the world. God sent us.

The theology of Yom and the concept of ‘who shall live and who shall die,’ is hardly believable for us. That is partially because we live in a world where we expect something and get it right away. That is because we fully expect to go to sleep tonight and wake up again in the morning. We care about the here and now, and we fully expect to be in the here and now. We don’t know about the future, but we don’t seem to be worried because that won’t affect us.

We learn in Taanit 23a of the Babylonian Talmud about a man walking along the road who comes across Honi the Circle Maker planting a Carob Tree. He looks at Honi and asks him: “how long will it take for the tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” Honi replies. “Seventy years?!?” The man cannot believe it. “You will not be alive in seventy years. Why would you plant a tree whose fruit you never get to eat,” the man scoffs. Honi quietly and confidently responded, “when I came into this world, there were carob trees ripe for the picking. Just as my parents planted for me, I will plant for my children.”

It is easy for us to not care about the future of the planet because we know it won’t affect us. We don’t have to worry about buying real estate on some space colony on Mars. We don’t have to worry about continents being submerged by water or animals becoming extinct. Not in our lifetime. But if that is how we view the future, then we are understanding the true message of Yom Kippur incorrectly. It’s not about the next day or the next year. It’s not about making it to the end of Neilah. It’s not about 5780. It is about what we want our legacies to be. What impact do we want to have in this world? Are we only concerned with us being written and sealed in the Book of Life for the year to come? Or do we want to make sure there is a Book of Life to be written into?

In our liturgy this evening, in our machzorim, we do not only that we have transgressed. We also ask God v’tein b’libeinu la’azov derech resha, to inspire our hearts to abandon this terrible path. Saying sorry isn’t enough. We need to be inspired to change. We need to be willing to change. We need to understand that what we as individuals strive to change may not be enough. But we ask God to inspire in our hearts to make a collective and communal change.  We admit our mistakes collectively. If we are going to save our planet, we must do so collectively as well.

Greta Thunberg concluded her UN speech with this promise: “We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.” Change is coming. And change must be coming here.

We have sinned. We have transgressed. I acknowledge that we have talked the talk on the bimah but not always walked the walk. We waste. We use paper and plastic. We leave lights on and don’t use energy efficient bulbs. We aren’t relying on renewable energy. That is about to change. In the year 5780, our newly constituted Beth El Green Team, will be working to make our sacred space and holy community one that understands and appreciates the importance the holy ground and sacred space of this planet, that when we make a promise of Tikkun Olam, to repair the world, we literally understand our need to save HaOlam, planet Earth.

RainbowInTheSkyThe power of the rainbow at the conclusion of Noah’s Flood was not just the promise and covenant that it represented. The rainbow represents the opportunity and ability to rebuild. It was a reminder that no matter what pain and destruction, metaphorical or literal, that we have caused and that we experienced. We can rebuild this world anew. No matter what the last year was, this year will be better, as long as we put in the work to make it so. Our past doesn’t need to dictate our future. The rainbow is our future. We do not see where it ends. If we put in the work, our potential to save this world is limitless. And our children will lead us. The prophet Isaiah promised (54:13) that children shall be disciples of God and how great will the peace of your children be, v’rav shalom baniyich. Midrash suggests that rather than reading this verse as baniyich, your children, we should read it as boniyech, your builders. Our children will follow God’s path, even if we don’t, and will build a world of Shalom. But Shalom here is not peace. Shalom comes from shalem, meaning whole. The Prophet Isaiah is revealing to us is that it is our children who will fix our past mistakes and transgressions. They will lead us. They are our rainbow. They are our dove with an olive branch. May we plant for them so that there is still a world left for them to repair. May we save the world for them. May they save the world for us. And may our entire planet be inscribed in the Book of Life.  Amen.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Bound Up and Becoming

The following sermon “Bound Up and Becoming” was delivered on Yom Kippur Morning 5779 prior to the Yizkor service at Congregation Beth El:

When I first met my future father-in-law after Andrea and I had been dating for a few months, he was already sick, although we were unaware at that time of his diagnosis. He was ill for much of Andrea’s teen years. Each time we would go to visit him though, in preparation for those visits, she would share stories and memories she had as a child, of his pick-up soccer games in town or taking her to TCBY for Frozen Yogurt after school. Once he was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease, a neurological degenerative disorder, when we were in college, he declined quickly. He was too ill to attend our wedding, and we had an additional separate ceremony in his nursing home weeks later, so he could see his daughter get married.

He passed away a few of months after that. I think back to Andrea sharing those memories with me. She would keep those memories in the front of her mind when he was sick, and all those more so after he had passed away, because that was the part of him that she wanted to hold unto. The positive. The joyful. The memories that put smiles on her face. That was the part of him that she chooses to remember. That is the part of him, that in turn, becomes a part of her.

As his first yahrtzeit approached, I remember the conversation Andrea and I had. She decided that she wanted to make a Shabbat dinner in his honor. Since he was from Colombia, she decided to make Spanish themed dinner, with paella as the main dish. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with paella, but it’s a Spanish rice dish filled with chorizo sausage, shellfish, and prosciutto, not the ideal dish when you keep kosher. Living in Jerusalem at the time, we went from open-air market to market, searching for kosher alternatives to these very non-kosher meats. If I remember correctly, we settled on a variety of salami and chicken. And the taste didn’t even matter. What mattered was that it was meant to be a vehicle to keep my father-in-law present, to actively remember him. To bring him to that moment. To keep him in our lives.

It was a single Shabbat meal, but it was more than that. I remember my wife’s desire, thanks to social media, to begin interacting with many of her father’s extended relatives whom she had never met before. We returned from Israel and she became determined to volunteer with the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, HDSA, the national organizational that does research to find a cure for HD. Like many who choose to raise awareness for an illness or a disease after that illness took our loved one from this world, I believe we become involved in these organizations for two reasons. First, it is to make sure that fewer suffer through the same physical pain that our loved one’s did, to search for a cure, to save lives as a result. But second, it is to ensure that our loved ones live on. Because if their lives inspired us, then they didn’t die in vain.

When we recite the words of the El Maleh Rachamin, the Memorial Prayer, we pray that our loved one’s memory endures as inspiration for commitment to their ideals and integrity in our lives. We don’t just shape our lives based on the causes which they once held dear. We become them. They become a part of us – Tehe Nishmatam tzerura bitzur hachayim – we pray that their souls are bound up in the bond of life, and we become them.

 

At the very end of Parashat Noach, the Torah portion that focuses on the infamous forty-days-and-forty-nights flood and the building of the Tower of Babel, we read of the lineage that links the generation of Noah to the generation of Abraham, the next protagonist in Genesis. Abraham is preparing to go on his own prophetic journey, to hear God and on faith alone, travel to wherever it is that God instructs him. But first, Parashat Noach ends with the declaration that Terach, Abraham’s father, took his son Abram, his grandson Lot, and his daughter-in-law Sarai and they set out for the land of Canaan, but when they arrived at Charan, they settled there instead. With that, the Torah portion ends.

Yet, we spend a great deal of time focused on Abram’s Lech-Lecha journey, his journey to the land of Canaan, or as the Divine Promise reads: to a land that I will show you. But Abram wasn’t going on a new journey. He had simply recommitted to continuing the journey his father was already on. Terach set out on his journey, but stopped short of his destination and never continued. Abram’s journey was not a fulfilling a Divine command, even if he heard God’s angelic voice calling out to him from the Heavens. Rather, he was walking in his deceased father’s footsteps, carrying on his legacy. He was striving to fulfill what his father could not, and in doing so, keep him alive and his legacy alive in this world. He was doing more than that. In a way, he was becoming his father. He was using his father as inspiration to do what he set out to do, to achieve what his father was unable to. He was making sure his father was bound up in the bond of his life, by doing as he did, by learning from him, by walking in his ways, and by leading by his example.

 

When I lived in Jacksonville, Florida, I would often stop at the Gate Gas Station. Not just to fill up my tank, but the small gas station convenience store there was always open. It was always filled with middle schoolers on Friday afternoons, much like the 7-Eleven is here in downtown South Orange. It was at that gas station that Jordan Davis was shot and killed by Michael Dunn on the evening of November 23, 2012. What did 17-year-old Jordan Davis do wrong? He was riding with friends in an SUV late on a Friday evening. He was blasting music on the stereo system. And he was black. Because of Dunn’s racism, and because of Florida’s dangerous Stand Your Ground law, Dunn started shooting at the car parked next to him, murdering Jordan as a result. Michael Dunn was found guilty, given a life sentence without parole. But young Jordan Davis, who had his full life ahead of him, would never get to live that life.

His mother, Lucy McBath, spent most of her life as a flight attendant for Delta Airlines. When they would live together in Atlanta, she would make sure that she would only fly on Delta’s short commuter flights, to fly out in the morning and fly back soon after, in order to be home for dinner and bedtime. She was a working mother. She never wanted to be a politician. In a powerful ad, Lucy McBath says, “Jordan didn’t deserve to be shot at, or to die that way. I lost my son Jordan, but I am still his mother, I continue to mother him by making sure I preserve the lives of other children like him.” She wanted to ensure that he lived on by working to keep other children safe, so that they too wouldn’t become the victims of gun violence. But she also made sure he lived on by keeping a part of him with her, by becoming him.

When she announced her campaign for Congress, she declared: “Jordan wanted to be a community activist. What I thought I saw in him is what I’ve become.” What she thought she saw in him, she became. We may be familiar with children taking after their parents, seemingly holding unto them after they leave this world, becoming them. But she took after her son. He was the role model for her. She became him.

At the conclusion of her ad, she asks, “How do you turn grief into purpose?” Lucy McBath saw her son violently murdered, another victim of gun violence, and decided to run for Congress, not just to change policy, but because she imagined that her son would be an elected official one day. She carried on his legacy, by fulfilling his dreams that he never got to see come true. She realized his potential in herself.

 

Our biblical patriarch Isaac had a challenging relationship with his father Abraham. Just last week, on Rosh Hashanah, we read of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac. As an adult, despite his tumultuous and troubling relationship with his father, Isaac buries Abraham when he dies.

Following the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, there is not again a single word of dialogue between father and son in the rest of the Torah. Yet, Isaac not only returned to burying his father, in mourning, he walked in his father’s footsteps. Not only did he sow the land, but we read:

Vayelech Misham Yitzhak va’yichan b’nachal Gerar vayeshev Sham. Isaac departed from there and encamped in the wadi of Gerar and settled there. Vayashav Yitzhak vayachpor et b’erot hamayim asher chafru biy’mei Avraham aviv vay’satmum p’lishtim acharei mot Avraham Vayikra lahen shemot Kashemot asher kara lahen aviv. Isaac then du ganew the wells which his father Abraham had dug, which had been stopped up by the Philistines after Abraham’s death. And Isaac gave them the same names that his father had given them. (Genesis 26:17-18)

Isaac physically retraced his father’s footsteps, went on his father’s journey, dug the wells his father dug, and named them the same names that his father had given them. Intentionally or unintentionally, in  grief, he sought to become just like his father.

Psychologist Diane Barth tells a story that sounds all too familiar. A young mother was trying to get her struggling three year old daughter into her stroller when she heard herself saying words she had vowed never to utter – phrases her mother had used throughout her childhood. Despite all of her efforts to parent her own children very differently, she found that those familiar sentences were the first to come into her brain and out of her mouth.

There are times when we strive to be just like our loved ones who have passed away. We want to hold on to the best parts of them. But even when we strive to be different than them, we still become a part of them; they still become a part of us. We take on characteristics (the good, the bad, the annoying, and the beautiful) of parents, of siblings, of spouses, and even of children.

A finding of Psychology Today suggests that we become just like our loved ones because of neuroscience. We are programmed to develop through interactions with others. This is why early paternal behavior has such an impact on our psyches, the article notes, but also suggests that this is why and how we change and evolve throughout our lives. Interactions with those closest to us, siblings and parents, spouses and children, colleagues and friends, can teach our brain new patterns, can alter our sense of self.

Or to put it in a more spiritual sense, each time someone has an impact on our lives, a little bit of their soul becomes intertwined with our souls. The Hebrew words for soul is Neshama. Torah teaches that God breathed life, breathed their souls into the first human beings.

Thus, the Hebrew for breath is the same root, Neshima. For not only does God breathe our souls into our bodies, as tradition teaches, but with each breath we take, we share ourselves and the souls of our loved ones with this world. We are told that their souls are bound up in the bond of our lives. But it is more than that. Their souls become intertwined with our souls. They remain in our lives because they guide us in our lives. We hold unto them by doing more than just taking them with us. They become a part of us.

How do we carry on the legacy of our loved ones who have left this world? How do we ensure that our loved ones are bound in in the bond of our lives? How do we, as Lucy McBath asked, turn our grief into purpose? We become them. For better or worse, we become them.

We sit in this holy space, at this most serious of times, as we prepare to recite the words of Yizkor, as we prepare to remember our loved ones. But memory is active. Memory is about more than just recalling those who’ve we lost and bringing us back to a specific moment in time. Memory is about keeping our loved ones alive. With every joke that we tell, with every phrase that we say, with every gesture that we make, with every cause that we fight for, with every lesson that we teach, with every aspect of our being, we remember our loved ones because we do as they did, we become them.

We are often named after loved ones that we did not know as a way to carry on their legacies, as a way to carry on their lives. We keep them alive, in hopes that the best parts of them are instilled within us. The Ohr HaChayim’s commentary on Deuteronomy suggests that parents receive a glimmer of divine inspiration when choosing a name for their child. God guides us in making sure that we name after loved ones, God ensures that our loves ones’ souls are bond up in the bond of life, in the lives of those who come after them.

It says in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 7b, that God’s works are drawn into this world through a person’s name. A person’s name is a guide to whom they will become in this world.

And so, when we named our own children, little Hannah Faye, after my grandmother and great grandmother, Noah Abraham, after my grandfather, and Cayla Penina, after Andrea’s grandmother and father, my father-in-law, our hopes and prayer was that they would live on through them.

One of the first dishes that Andrea and Cayla made in the kitchen together, chef with sous-chef by her side, was Colombian. And Cayla’s favorite afterschool activity: a trip for frozen yogurt. We mourn on this day and at this moment, all of our loved ones who have left this world. But maybe, we should also celebrate for they are all around us. Their presence is felt all around us. For they are a part of us.

May the memories of all those we mourn at this moment be for a blessing. And may we always remember that they are not gone. They are here. Their souls are bound up in the bond of our lives. And they are a part of us. We have become them. Amen.

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Yom Kippur Sermons

Shana Tova! I continue to be on a spiritual high for a meaningful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I hope you feel a sense of hope as well as we begin the new year.

For those who are interested, here are the sermons I shared with the Congregation Beth El community during Yom Kippur 5778. The first – delivered on Kol Nidre – deals with teh struggle of loneliness and is inspired by the musical, “Dear Evan Hansen.” The second delivered on Yom Kippur day prior to the Yizkor service, forces us to question how we will be remembered when we leave this world.

I look forward to your comments and feedback.

Kol Nidre 5778: You Will Be Found

Yom Kippur 5778: Who Will Mourn For You?

Wishing you a happy and healthy new year!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Yom Kippur Sermons 5776

For those who missed them, want to read them again, or are interested, here are my Yom Kippur sermons, delivered at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, NJ:

Kol Nidre: Letting Go of Guilt

Yom Kippur Morning: Carrying our Loved Ones – and their Memories – with us

Please feel free to share your feedback, thoughts, and comments.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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