Friday, January 28, 2022

A Time to Remember

The daily news cycle offers an avalanche of news stories that are filled with controversy and anguish. The news media knows that stories that communicate messages of kindness, hope, and optimism won’t boost ratings. The message of every silver lining has a cloud is much more like to be retweeted and gain traction in the social media world and beyond. For this reason, I was astounded at a most remarkable that caught my attention in the news that did not appear to be widely circulated. Ceremonies were held around the world to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day this week on January 27. This date was chosen as it’s the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Bundestag (German Parliament) invited Mickey Levy, the Speaker of the Israeli Knesset to deliver the main address to commemorate the vent. Levy delivered a heartfelt and emotional speech from the podium in the Bundestag. “Here, in this historic building, the house of the German parliament, one can grasp — if only slightly — the ability of human beings to take advantage of democracy to defeat it,” Levy said. “It is a place where humanity stretched the boundaries of evil — a place where the loss of values turned a democratic framework into racist and discriminatory tyranny. That is why it is precisely here, within the walls of this house, which stand as silent stone and steel witnesses, that we are re-learning how fragile democracy is, and are once again reminded of our duty to guard it with all vigilance.” Levy concluded his remarks by reciting the Kaddish from a Siddur that was used by a Bar Mitzvah boy immediately before Kristallnacht. He was visibly emotional as he concluded the Kaddish. The members of the Bundestag rose to give him a standing ovation. I thought it was nothing short of extraordinary that on the very same stage that Hitler stood to call for the completer and utter destruction of all Jews, the Kaddish was being recited by a leader of the modern Jewish State. It reminded me of the words in the Haggadah, שֶׁלֹּא אֶחָד בִּלְבָד עָמַד עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ, אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלוֹתֵנוּ, וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם. The translation is since it is not only one [person or nation] that has stood [against] us to destroy us, but rather in each generation, they stand [against] us to destroy us, but the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hand. It also reminded me about the fragile state of security that we are forced to confront regularly. It wasn’t long ago that we thought we had turned a corner on global antisemitism and the Holocaust was becoming a distant memory. It appears that may be wishful thinking as 2021 was the worse year for antisemitic attacks in a decade, seeing an average of ten incidents a day with the likelihood of many more incidents not being reported, according to an annual review published Monday by the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency. 2021 was “the most antisemitic year in the last decade,” the two organizations said in a joint statement. The average number of antisemitic incidents reported in 2021 was more than ten per day, the report found. Many in our community are asking more frequently if the unthinkable can occur in the United States of America. The Torah emphasizes the importance of Zachor/ Remember in regards to the evils of Amaleik. As many around the world paused to commemorate the Holocaust this week, the need to internalize the notion of Zachor is more relevant than ever. Have a peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, January 21, 2022

Important Message from Rabbi Fisch

The leadership of our shul recently began a process of exploring the viability of adjusting our mechitza to make it more halachically appropriate. Our current mechitza has been in place since the construction of our current building in 1986, so it’s natural to question the logic behind this seemingly controversial decision. Every organization and entity must recognize and understand its mission. Our beloved shul, which I am privileged to lead, is no exception. The Talmud teaches that the purpose of a synagogue is to be a מקדש מעט or a mini Beit Hamikdash. The purpose of the Beit Hamikdash was to have a spiritual oasis where Godliness can manifest itself in this mundane world. The service in the Beit Hamikdash required a level of decorum to the highest degree. For this reason, the Talmud teaches that men and women were in separate areas to avoid frivolity during the sacred times of prayer. As a mini Beit Hamikdash, Orthodox synagogues have been steadfast to this tradition for thousands of years, in an effort to maintain its sacred space. It is an unfortunate misconception to project the mechitza as a way of denigrating women. Nothing could be further from the truth. We respect and revere the women of our community. We also recognize the sacred space necessary for prayer and, in that spirit, there is a need for separate areas for men and women. The reality is that, in the range of halachic allowances, our current mechitza meets the bare minimum of acceptability. For this reason, we are exploring ways of upgrading the mechitza in an effort to fulfill our mission of having an appropriate mini Beit Hamikdash in our community. While this initiative is once again reminding us of how we must balance modernity and tradition, it’s important to remember that our commitment to Halacha has kept us anchored to our tradition. In engaging in this process, it’s important for everyone to know that there is another fundamental value to which we are committed. We pride ourselves on being an open and inclusive shul. In fact, our organizational motto is “a community shul with doors open to everyone.” Our diversity is our strength and, in an era of increased polarization and factionalism, we consider it a badge of honor that our membership consists of individuals with varying degrees of observance. We have been, and are still, committed to ensuring that everyone feels comfortable at Etz Chaim Synagogue. The fundamental values of fidelity to tradition and Halacha, coupled with our commitment to being an open and inclusive synagogue, is the mandate that our mechitza committee seeks to address. It is not mutually exclusive to be a kehilla that has a commitment to a high standard in Halacha and, simultaneously, to be an inclusive shul. I am not naive enough to believe that everyone will be happy with the recommendation of the committee. I am confident that our kehilla has the ability to communicate any disagreements with Derech Eretz and mutual respect. I am confident that our kehilla can be courageous and embrace a rock solid commitment to Halacha and tradition, while remaining the community shul with doors open to everyone. Have a peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, January 14, 2022

Manna in 2022?

The anxiety one can have about earning an adequate salary to pay all the bills can be rather debilitating at times. Inflation in the United States hit its fastest pace in nearly four decades in 2021 as pandemic-related supply and demand imbalances, along with stimulus intended to shore up the economy, pushed prices up at a 7% annual rate. With the cost of living rising dramatically and our paychecks not keeping up with that pace, it continues to weigh on our minds at all hours of the day and night. Yet, with all the efforts that we invest in this area, it’s important to remember there is a G-d that provides for our needs and make enables us to pursue a livelihood. That was the lesson of the manna in this week's Parsha. The Jews in the desert were at their wits when they realized the food they had was dwindling and were likely going to starve to death. Keep in mind, this was before the Amazon Prime trucks were providing deliveries in every neighborhood. One day they woke up and they realized that there was food outside everyone's tent. This was the Manna from heaven. Moshe told the people that this must be remembered for all of the time. If we are not receiving the Manna every morning at our doorstep with the newspaper that's delivered, in what way can it be remembered? Many times we might think if only there were fewer restrictions in Judaism our careers and livelihood might be more lucrative. The lesson of the manna should debunk that notion. Yes, we must not take anything for granted and work hard to yield that elusive paycheck. However, it is because of the grace of G-d that we are empowered to do just that. Compromising on Mitzvos or on our value system is not going to be more rewarding in this area. The next time we have doubts on this issue, it would be worthwhile to remember the lesson of the manna. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, January 7, 2022

Escaping Confinement

The Jewish People evolving from a small family to a proud nation is nearly complete in the narrative of this week's Parsha. The story of the Exodus is recorded in great detail. It is nothing short of remarkable to hear once again about how a few million Jews who were slaves marched out to freedom in broad daylight and their former masters were powerless to stop their journey to liberty. Putting it into a historical context, there were upwards of 650,000 casualties (that’s a conservative estimate) in the Civil War which was primarily fought for the emancipation of slaves. In the Exodus, the former Jewish slaves marched out of the clutches of a mighty superpower without a shot being fired. For this reason, the Exodus occupies such prominence in our lives and is remembered on our calendar with the celebration of Pesach and Sukkos. As important as the Exodus is in the story of the Jewish People, there seems to be disproportionate attention to this particular event. There are so many Mitzvahs connected to the Exodus that are well beyond the observance of Pesach and Sukkos. There is a special Mitzvah to remember all the days of our lives. Doesn't there seem to be a disproportionate focus on this event that occurred 3,300 years ago? There are a variety of perspectives on this pointed question and I would like to share the perspective of the Nesivos Shalom. He writes that it is imperative to not just merely view the Exodus as a one-time event but rather as a struggle that we are regularly experiencing. He notes that the word מצרים or Egypt is associated with the word מצר or confinement. All of us are confronted with challenges that feel as מצר or confinement in areas such as health, family spirituality. No one has immunity from any obstacles or difficulties. At these moments it is not unusual to have a crisis of faith and wonder when G-d will come through for us to deliver some relief. It is precisely for that reason that there is such a strong emphasis on the Exodus. It is for that reason that we are regularly reminding ourselves about salvation when all seemed bleak. As the Torah states in Devarim (6:23) וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם or He took us out of there. We may never have been to the geographical territory named Egypt nor do we have any plans to get there but that matters little. The most important element to remember is that no matter what place of confinement a person may find themselves in, we believe in the Al-Mighty that continually delivers redemption in any place and at any time. That message of hope is something we ought to reflect on the next time we observe any of the mItzvahs connected to the Exodus. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, December 17, 2021

Just do good

In a somewhat bizarre incident, Yosef brings his two sons Menashe and Ephraim to his ailing father’s bedside for a final parting and for the two young grandchildren to get a blessing from their sage grandfather. Yaakov stuns Yosef when he places his right hand on the second brother Ephraim and his left hand on the firstborn son Menashe. This is met with resistance from Yosef, who not so gently reminds his elderly father that Menashe is the firstborn and thus deserving to have the right hand placed on him. (This is somewhat ironic considering that Yosef who was not the firstborn was considered the preferred son and now he is taking offense that his firstborn son was not receiving his due honor). What was it about Yaakov’s insistence that Ephraim is the recipient of the preferred bracha? Not only that, but Yaakov designated the gold standard of blessings should be “ May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe” -- why was it so important that Ephraim precedes Menashe ? The Nesivos Shalom writes based on a famous verse in Tehillim/Psalms: סור מרע ועשה טוב /Desist from Evil and Perform Good. This is the formula that King David taught us toward the path of character development and improvement. First and foremost, it is important to desist from wrongdoing and only then to engage in mitzvah or good deeds. The only problem with that approach is that a person can always be busy with desisting wrongdoing and never get to perform one mitzvah or good deed -- for who can actually say that I have no baggage left in the closet and now I am free to pursue mitzvahs and good deeds? One of the best ways to desist from wrongdoing is to just do a mitzvah or good deed. This is illustrated with the story of Menashe and Ephraim. In Parshas Mikeitz, it states the reason why Yosef named his two sons Menashe and Ephraim. His first son was named Menashe for as he put it “God has made me forget the toil”, in essence that is the value of desist from wrongdoing. His second son was named Ephraim for as he put it “G-d made me fruitful in the land of my affliction”. In essence, this is the value of Asei Tov/Doing a Mitzvah or good deed. That was the deeper message of Yaakov in his designation of his two grandsons. Although in an ideal world, it is important to first get away from wrongdoing it is imperative that one just perform a mitzvah or a good deed as activation energy. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, December 10, 2021

Seek to understand then be understood

“If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This is one of the fundamental teachings of Stephen Covey. It is also the fifth habit in his famous book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. If you’re like most people, you probably seek first to be understood; you want to get your point across. And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you’re listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely. So why does this happen? Because most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. You listen to yourself as you prepare in your mind what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask, etc. You filter everything you hear through your life experiences, your frame of reference. You check what you hear against your autobiography and see how it measures up. And consequently, you decide prematurely what the other person means before he/she finishes communicating. Covey teaches us the supremely important value of truly trying to understand an opposing person’s position before attempting to convince someone else of your own opinion. I have long believed the Seven Habits of Covey are aligned with the wisdom found in the Torah. For example, in the Megilas Esther, when Esther sees Mordechai dressed in sackcloth, it was shocking and painful to view a loved one in such a compromising way. The message Esther sent to Mordechai was לָדַעַת מַה־זֶּה וְעַל־מַה־זֶּה This is translated as to know what this was and this was. I have wondered why the repetitive expression was necessary for Esther to get her point across! I believe she was applying the concept of seeking to understand before being understood. When you see something unusual and bizarre before rushing to judgment, it may be worthwhile to legitimately explore the reason for this viewpoint or practice. Unfortunately, when this does not occur, the consequences can be nothing short of catastrophic. We don't have to go further than this week's Parsha to witness the relationship of Yosef and his brothers and the cost of not seeking to understand the others first. Indeed, so many people are estranged from parents, spouses, siblings, and other family members. It doesn’t have to be this way. It might be worth it to seek to understand before being understood. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, November 12, 2021

Rising Inflation

People having frayed nerves about the economy is not a new thing. Government officials attempting to bring solutions forward is also an ancient practice. "A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage", declared a presidential hopeful about a century ago. The declaration did not calm the masses, and the person was derided for the comment. Alas, with the economic advancement in the modern age, people have real concerns again about the economy, with record inflation being felt in all sectors of the economy. Reaching into your pocket and feeling some cash in your pocket doesn't elicit the same feeling of security as the dollars don't translate into the same buying power of a short time ago. Social Security beneficiaries will receive a 5.9% increase as the cost of living adjustment to keep up with the rising cost of living in America today. While I am not an economist as there are various factors for the worrisome trend in the economy, it is a worthy time to reflect on the importance of materialism in our lives. In this week's Parsha, Yaakov makes a heartfelt prayer to G-d as he is about to embark on a journey fraught with danger. Yaakov explicitly asks that he be granted the privilege of having "bread to eat and clothes to wear." It's important to note the simplicity associated with the request. There were no extravagant or grandiose expectations. In times of plenty, one doesn't think twice about clicking and ordering the latest " must-have" on Black Friday or Cyber Monday. The times that we find ourselves in should give us pause to reflect about the role of materialism in our lives. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

A Time to Remember

The daily news cycle offers an avalanche of news stories that are filled with controversy and anguish. The news media knows that stories th...