Author Archives: Isaiah Rothstein

Isaiah Rothstein

About Isaiah Rothstein

Isaiah Rothstein is a 4th year rabbinical student at Yeshiva University and works as the Spiritual and Experiential Educator at Carmel Academy in Greenwich, CT. Isaiah is the product of a mixed-race marriage, and proud Jew of Color.

Achieving Shalom

shalom2Commonly defined as peace, hello and goodbye, Shalom cannot simply be translated and then understood by its English description. In Western society peace of mind, is often described as a getaway to the Bahamas where you are never to be concerned with anything. In this week’s Torah portion we see the absence of Shalom as the greatest recipe for destruction.

Joseph the Dreamer, blessed with such beauty and charisma, and yet is still the source of strife and disharmony among the remaining tribes, and consequently the Nation of Israel.  His brothers angered by his very existence, Shalom, in its most true definition was impossible to attain.

“His Brothers saw that it was he whom their father loved most of all his brothers so they hated him; and they could not speak to him peaceably (shalom) (37:4).”

The days of true shalom cannot be acquired as long as we continue to define it with its perplexing opposites (hello, goodbye, etc.), but rather, we must look deeper at the name of our Holy City Jerusalem (they will see-Yeru. Shalom-Peace), and beyond. Says Rebbe Nachman of Breslav (Ukraine, 18th century):

“What is Shalom? It is the joining of two total opposites. As Our Rabbis of Blessed Memory said on the verse ‘(Oseh Shalom) he who makes peace on heights (above), He who makes peace upon us (below)’ This is the joining of two total opposites, for although fire puts out water, and the Holy Blessed is He brought peace by joining them together (LM 1:80).”

True Shalom cannot exist when there is conflict. It is the joining of opposites, and it’s confrontation that brings true shalom into the world. Not waterfalls and bunny rabbits, i.e., avoidance, but head-on conflict resolution.

In many ways, the darkness of Hanukkah is felt strongly by our world today. Ebola outbreaks, Islamic State, Israel’s questionable fate in the eyes of many, and the killing of the helpless innocent solely because of prejudices and racism. How many opposites we have to confront today? It seems endless. And still, we take the candle, and we join liquid and fire with a flame unwavering, and we say that Shalom will. Shalom Must. Shalom, will light up the world.

“The Holy One Blessed be He, cannot find a stronger vessel to hold blessing than that of Shalom (Mishneh, Uktzin 3).”

With Rebbe Nachman’s definition of shalom, can you shed light on some of our colloquial uses? Shabbat Shalom, Shalom Bayit, Oseh Shalom etc. “Who forms light and creates darkness, Who makes peace etc…” Feel free to leave your thoughts!

Posted on December 10, 2014

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Why Are We Called the “Children of Israel?” and Not Jacob?

jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel-genesis-xxxii-24-30As a Jew, do I respond to the needs of the stranger as I am repeatedly commanded to do so? As a Jew, have I fought to recruit a jury and politicians that stands for equality and justice? As Jew, should my voice be raised high, discontented and repetitive until justice is met? 

For me, as I recall the anti-Semitic struggle of my European ancestors, and as I seek to understand how my grandfather’s grandmother, Lucille Mcgruder, was born enslaved in West Virginia during a segment of America’s darkest times, these questions burn in my mind. But as we learn from the story of how Jacob became Israel, these questions are fundamental to all Jews.

In Genesis 32: 25-29 we read:

And Jacob was left alone, and a man (some say angel) wrestled with him until morning…and he (man/angel) said ‘let me go because it is the morning, and he (Jacob) said I will not let you go unless you bless me, and he (angel/man) said to him ‘what is your name?’ he said ‘Jacob.’ And he (angel/man) said, ‘no longer shall your name be Jacob, but rather Israel, because you struggled with God (for the sake of the Divine), and with men (for the sake of man) and were triumphant.’” 

Later in the Bible, in his final message to our nation, Moses reminds the people of Israel as they get ready to enter the land of Israel, that the Israelites are who they are because they seek justice from below and above. Fundamental to being Jews was the agreement with God to make the physical world free of spiritual and moral blemish. We were “chosen” to elevate the stranger the orphan and the widow, and to build a world of moral courage and freedoms for all. We were “chosen” to be Israel, to struggle with the Divine and with Men, to fight for the Divine when Men fall low, and to Fight with God, when men cant “pull it together.” As we learn about Jacob in the Torah, we were not “chosen,” to stay in the walls of our synagogue (tent), because the plight of the world is too great to stay concealed in the warmth of the soul.

We are called Israel, because we made a decision to scream out when corruption is rampant. (Numbers 25:11)

We are called Israel, because we are not afraid to say that truth should reign in the place of folly. (Joseph the Righteous, 41:42)

We are called Israel, because of people like Louis Isaac Jaffe who condemned American whites for lynching American Blacks.

We are called Israel, because of people like Gili Rosenberg who reasoned “because they are our brothers” when asked why she joined the Kurdish fighters against ISIS.

We are called Israel, because even when my twin brother plots evil schemes against me, I will still attempt to appease him (Genesis 33:3)

We are named Israel, because when she comes, we know her well, when the stranger is without refuge, we defend and embrace her without hesitation.

Jacob wrestled with the angel and the battle left him with a limp and a new name. Jews collectively embrace the name Israel, because we will wrestle, even when it means that we may leave limping.

Posted on December 1, 2014

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Embracing the Contradictions

twins2

“And the boys ran about inside her, and she [Rebecca] said, If this is so, then why am I? and she went to seek God. And God said to her ‘two nations are in your womb, and two are in your insides, and one nation will be stronger than the other and the older shall serve the younger (26:27).”

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (France, 12th century) notes that Rebecca expected to mother just the Jewish people and have a singleton birth from which would come the Jewish people. Instead two separate entities grew within her, two powers, two forms of kingship.

But what forms of kingships exactly?

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches (Ukraine, 18th century) that “there are two forms of kingship in the world: one that is hidden for our sake, and one that is revealed for the sake of the world.”

Esau is called “the man who knows game, the man of the field.” While YJacob aakov is called the “simple man who dwelt in the tents.” Esau was called the revealed kingship, with billboards and banners, while Jacob is perceived as modest, without complexity, “a simple man.” Total opposites. An extrovert and an introvert. One of words, and one of action, one voice, and the other of hands.

But it is Rebekah’s vision to bring these two oppositional forces together. And she does so covertly and with implicit intentions. When Jacob, approached Isaac his father, he touched him. His father then states: “the voice is the voice of Jacob, and the hands are the hands of Esau (27:22).” Both sides come together, Rebekah’s vision was complete.

At last, Jacob must leave his tent, and learn about the second kind of kingship, the one of the field, the one of subjectivity Jacob must embrace the world of difference. Who did Jacob become? As the verse states “the voice of Jacob with the hands of Esau.” This verse teaches us the ability to know when to use our words softly, as if in a tent, but also to know when to scream as if in a field was what made Jacob a worldly and appropriate individual to father the Jewish nation. To have the splendor of multiple realities existing simultaneously.

Very often we are presented with difficulties that are out of our reach. We call them problems. We complain, we sigh, we scoff, and we cry because we believe the problem to be an outside influence, and not something that is a part of me and my experience. When such a struggle surfaces, how do I react, do I embrace the conflict as an opportunity like Rebekah, do I encourage fusion of ideas or perspectives? Or do I run? Do I allow for conflict to remain for always? Do I even try?

 And Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. (33:4)

Posted on November 20, 2014

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Seeing Double

pizzaDiversity is like a pizza pie. When I get my slice of pizza, I may feel as if no one is about to take part in this mouth watering experience, this mushroom-onion slice is mine, and mine alone. But as I finish, pay and make my way towards the door, I notice others, with a slice almost identical to my own. I pause, and I realize I am seeing double. And as I look at the pizza tray behind the closed glass, I take note, at times against my will, that the pizza others eat comes from the same place mine did. My experience is my own but is it also connected to theirs.

Parashat Chayei Sarah, is a portion of doubles and seeming contradictions, distancing and connecting: While Abraham claims his identity as a “resident” during his negotiation process of Sarah’s burial plot, he also identifies himself as a “stranger” amongst them. Similarly, Rebecca, our second matriarch, was a righteous woman, who carried the weight of living with “Laban the Deceitful,” but was able to remain true to herself. A conflict for some, possible for Rebecca. Finally, Isaac too brings together two things that often are seen as opposite. When he standardizes the afternoon, Mincha prayer, he connects day and night.

We humans have a proclivity for individualism. It helps us determine our own self-image, and define who we are in any situation. We carry this instinct to compartmentalize and differentiate from that which is other than the self. I may share the same pie of pizza with four strangers, but struggle to identify with them and their experience.

As the Torah states in Genesis (23:19): “and after this (the sale of the plot of land) Avraham buried his wife Sarah in the Machpeila cave in the fields, opposite Mamre, Hebron, in the land of Canaan. And the field and the cave transaction became established for Avraham as a burial place.” Avraham purchases a cave to preserve the life of Sarah and their legacy together. But also the field which can be planted, allowing him to  begin to fulfill the destiny of the Jewish nation in the Land of Israel.

Later in the same portion, we read of Rebecca. Her opening scene points to her enthusiasm and personal responsibility to connect at every moment to HaShem. “She (Rivka) finished giving him drink, she said, I will draw water even for your camels until they have finished drinking.” So she hurried and emptied her jug into the trough and kept running to the well to draw water, and she drew for all his camels.” The word Rivka (Rebecca) means to link. In addition, the Hebrew letters R.V.K.H are the same letters as H.B.K.R (the morning). And just as her husband linked day to night with twilight, she connected night to day.

As we navigate a world filled with complex paradoxes and certain ambiguity, this portion teaches us we should embrace dualities and reach out to connect with that which is beyond our selves and personal experience. Just as Avraham created a connection through the generations and Rebecca created spiritual connections. We cannot be consumed by our own experiences, whether mundane like eating pizza or grand like loosing loved ones, but rather like our fore-parents we need see our experiences as opportunities to connect.

Posted on November 13, 2014

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Sarah and the Struggle of the Barren Identity

sarahByWater2

This week, I’d like to focus on the self, not as the observer, but as the observed. Not when we felt comfortable enough to notice the difference in the other, but more the moment my insides pinch from when realizing everything we believe ourselves to be, is called into question. It is because in those moments that my identity has been threatened that I not only retreat inwardly, but fend off all potential opposition—losing not only myself, but connection to a community and lifestyle.

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, teaches us that in order to reach the goal of the self-actualization, a person must feel comfortable in their environment and develop a sense of identity. This need, or the “esteem need” is bedrock of the human experience. In his work, A Theory of Human Motivation, Maslow explores this need, and what happens when it goes unmet:

“All people in our society (with a few pathological exceptions) have a need or desire for a stable, firmly based, (usually) high evaluation of themselves, for self respect, or self-esteem, and from the esteem of others…the desire for strength, for achievement, for adequacy, for confidence in the face of the world, for independence for freedom.”

We need people to see us in a positive light, and we do things constantly in order to be perceived the way in which seems fitting in our own eyes for their eyes.

How difficult the journey when I am the stranger in a world that does not welcome me? How sad the setting that causes me to feel so estranged that my basic human need, values, beliefs and my very identity is lost?

In Genesis 21:6, on the surface, we read of barren woman without a child to call her own, but with a deeper look, we see a woman barren of identity, lost within an environment that belittles her for her inability to give birth. Sarah, caught in a net of self-estrangement and difference, cannot believe that at her old age of ninety that she would give birth.

“And Sarah Said: ‘God has made laughter for me; everyone that will hear, will laugh because of me.’ And she said: ‘who would have said to Avraham that Sarah could breast-feed.’ ‘For I have bore him a son in his old age?’”

In the social jungle of the human experience, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity. When I am incapable of adapting to a setting, I am left with few options or coping strategies. Some people laugh and some disengage. Some stay in the corner, and others leave, but here we learn of our Matriarch, a woman with enough confidence to leave her entire life behind for a new one, but loses herself when she realizes it is her who does not fit in.

As our world grows further apart and closer together, as we get thirstier for connection in a desperate kind of way, the opportunity is upon us to welcome in the other, to tolerate ritual and spiritual expression in its many facets. To proclaim loud, “I know you are different, but come closer…I’m different too!” For without doing so, diversity is rejected, and our Jewish identities will remain a far cry from being our own.

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Posted on November 6, 2014

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Lot, the Subjective Stranger: A Call for Diversity

 Isaiahfamily2“Is she converting?”

“Clearly, she is not from around here, I wonder if she is even Jewish.”

“She must be someone’s nanny…”

These were not just the petty thoughts of those who saw me with my mother, but also at times the actual words spoken. Did these people aim to offend and to distance us? I pray not, but somehow and sometimes, the natural tendency of those who experience something foreign is to immediately cause distance for the sake retaining his/her individual comfort.

While our synagogue, school, corporate and communal settings include the value of diversity as a central tenet in their mission statements, it is all but natural to grow suspicious of the stranger and to create a distance, a separateness, and the “not me, not my problem,” mentality. Our mixed race family never asked to be objectified, and turned into a lifeless color scheme of browns and whites. All we wanted, and still want like others like us, is to dwell among our tribe(s) with respect, validity and with a communal concern for our well-being.

We see in this week’s Torah portion that Avram (later Avraham) recognized the need to distance himself from his nephew Lot, while making sure that he would remain a relevant presence; that a song of many notes not only can, but should exist in harmony. From the pathway of soulless objectivity to the recognition of pulsing subjectivity; from “someone else will welcome them,” to “I will welcome them!:”

“And Avram said… ‘Please let there be no fighting between me and you and between your shepherds and my shepherds, for we are men who are brothers. Is not the whole land before us, please separate from me, if you go left, I will go right, if you go right I will go left (13:8).’

Yes. Indeed, there are times when we must turn away from the other. When being around opposition does threaten our comforts and existence. For when that situation presents itself, it is in our very best interest to curl our backs; to skirt all potential communication and to distance ourselves…

But when? and how?! How do I harmoniously keep inclusion as a central value in my life, while also recognizing the need for boundaries? Should I debase the humanistic qualities of the other, like the Pharoah of Egypt, and the Haman and Hitler of yesteryear? No! Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (Cologne, 13th century) taught that allowing for borders and boundaries to exist is the recipe needed for containing and creating Shalom, it is what builds us up, not breaks us down.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Troyes, 11th century) suggests, that the meaning of Avraham’s statement “please separate from me” is not to convey that there shall be an eternal severance between the two, but rather “where your dwell, I will not distance myself from you, and I will stand by you as protector and a helper.” That although we must remain separate, I will never objectify you, I will keep you close to me.

As we open our eyes to the other, let us remember that like Avram, it is OK to create borders with she who is different than you, but only, only when it does not objectify them. Only when who they are is so important to who you are. Where their border is your border; where their needs are your needs. Then it will be, that our hearts will soar and join, in the call for diversity.

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Posted on October 30, 2014

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A Call for Diversity: The Tower of Babel

languages2While driving down Route 95 on the East Coast, one has the ability to survey hundreds of billboards along the way. They aim to tell the passerby that life without their product is a life that is incomplete. Without that specific phone, insurance plan, TV show or washing machine, one may run the risk of being an outcast, unaffiliated, and simply on the wrong train. All too often, the sole intent of the advertisement company is to draw one away from their current status of living and suggest that uniting with their agenda is the best way to succeed in the world, denying diversity, for the sake of uniformity.

In this week’s Torah portion (Genesis 11:1-9) we read about the demands of the nations to create a world of sameness and uniformity: the Tower of Babel.

“And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech… And they said one to another: ‘Come, let us build a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth… And the LORD said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; … So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth… Therefore was the name of it called Babel…”

Rabbi Ovadia S’forno (Italy, 16th century) comments that these nations desired to create a world of homogeny because they believed that Man’s ability to proliferate as a species (remember we weren’t that old yet) would only be possible with universalized speech and thought, hence never causing separation and differences to surface. Surely there have been times where we may strongly relate to these nations’ desire for uniformity. By nature, avoiding conflict is one of the basic tenants set out by Anna Freud in her work on defense mechanisms. Granted, placed there in order for us retain our peace of mind, but this was not the intention of our Creator. God did not want us to look the same, speak the same or act the same, and thus the call for diversity caused the tower of exclusivity to crumble.

In the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 19th century), “Mankind must be scattered, must distribute itself among all the different regions of earth in order that the most divergent and contrary faculties of the human mind may find in nature the needed opportunities of development, in order that experience become full and complete…” We learn here that the Torah does not only welcome diversity, but insists on it. Though we may have been scattered to the far ends of the earth, our ability to create our own borders, languages, and theological premises, has been the gift that allowed for civilization to thrive economically, culturally, and intellectually from Noah until now.

It is our duty as Jews to not only welcome-in the other because it “feels” like the right thing to do, and more so, because God’s intentions were never to produce a world of uniformity, but strengthen us to call far and near for a world of diversity.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Posted on October 23, 2014

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Our Jewish African Roots

Though the Ethiopian sun beat down on our necks as we layed mortar and brick for the school’s foundation in Gondar, Ethiopia, no suntan lotion could prevent the mark our ancient discovery would bring us as we made our way through buried past of our Jewish family, the Jews of Ethiopia…

isaiah_girl2Last winter I had the distinct pleasure of joining the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) cohort of twenty-five young professionals on a journey to Ethiopia. Charged with passion for social justice, and a commitment to peoples in need, each of us brought a unique perspective on Judaism, Ethiopians and the world of poverty. Each of us came with stories; each longed to heal the fractured world, but none shared the perspective of being an Orthodox Jewish rabbinical student who is empowered by his dual heritage of both African and European descent; who proudly identifies as a Jew of Color. None, that is, except me.

I was captured in a state of knowing that a part of my family once originated just west of Ethiopia, I was entangled in a state of feeling that I was among the few who were lucky enough to explore the story of the African Jews of yesteryear, and I was saddened by the living conditions of the “Third World,” and wondered how it got this way.

After an entire day of supplying medication to dozens of shifts of schoolchildren who get repeatedly sick because of the disease infested water, our JDC cohort began a new and uncharted journey through the tall grass on the outskirts of the Gondar village. Soon we saw a large enclosed area in the middle of the field. We hopped in. Dan, a member of the JDC year-long fellowship was the first one in, I was the second. “I’m pretty sure this is the Jewish cemetery,” he murmured as we took our first steps. Dumbstruck, I stammered “wh-where?…” He turned around to look at me, and then at the ground, then back at me and said sharply “right. here.” I felt lost for a moment, and then notice a rectangular formation of rocks and realized we were walking over graves. 

cemetaryAfter coming to my senses, I called for the group to go around the enclosed field and meet us at the other side. Dan, myself, and the few others plowed through until we were at the peripheral area. As we reached the end of the field, there were four tombstones standing strong with Amharic chalked onto the stone. Maybe they were wealthy Jews? A rabbinic family? Recent deaths (within the last 200 years)? we had no idea. Like Jacob in the Torah (Genesis 28:17), we did not know the greatness of this place… it struck me.

Standing around these graves we looked to one another. I realized no matter how far the cultural and religious ties from the reality of most of our current communities, as a future rabbi, as the only clergy on the trip, I knew words must be shared, and the silence had to be broken.

“One of the most vicious ways to go to war against a people is through destroying their culture and way of life. Many cultures would bury total cities to erase their opponents from history, and yet, the very fact that there is knowledge that there is a Jewish cemetery shows the intense commitment of our ancestors before us. Despite religious practice, wealth or pressures from the outside world, these Jews in their hundreds, stuck together. Child after child, parent after parent joined in life and as we see, in death with their Jewish roots.

“In a world of so much fragmentation, we must not mistake that brokenness will not find itself in the strongest of families. As we the Jewish people engage in the struggle unify our communities, let this experience remind us that if our ancestors died together, through all the troubles of exile, then we, the living, must live together despite all that challenges to do otherwise.”

We recited King David’s Pslams 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall lack nothing…” and we began our walk back to the center where our Jeeps and JDC personnel took us back to civilization. As the cohort was in the distance, I walked slowly and I took one last glance at the graves of my people, and said “thank you, thank you, thank you.”

So the sun may wane, and the mark may fade, but the blessing in the Amidah to “gather the exiles from the four corners of the earth,” will forever include not just those close to my community, but also our Jewish brothers and sisters in Ethiopia, thousands of years old.

 

Posted on April 24, 2014

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