Friday, June 28, 2024

Most Destructive Word in the English Language

I have always been intrigued by the “word of the year.” This last year of 2023, Merriam Webster designated “authentic” as the WOTY (word of the year). Authentic was chosen as our society transitions into the AI landscape, and more of us are questioning how authenticity factors into the new age. If the previous honorees are any indication, the word of the year serves as a snapshot of society’s collective consciousness. Each year, the dictionary maker, one of the most trusted sources for understanding the meaning of words, awards this annual distinction based on search volume and other metrics. The word of the year for 2022 was “gaslight” and in 2020, “pandemic” held the top spot. It should be noted that these words chosen for WOTY are only according to Merriam-Webster. Oxford and have other words chosen as WOTY. This underscores that words can reflect the temperature of a society and communicate its deeper-held beliefs and collective consciousness. Is there one word out there that one can categorize and the most destructive word in English? On the flip side, what is the most constructive word in our vernacular? I would argue the most destructive word is “BUT!” The word but can be used to not only point out negativity but also to negate any positive aspects that have been subscribed to a person, etc. For example, sometimes we hear that person is very kind and sweet BUT… The moment we hear the BUT, we might completely forget any positive attributes and only remember the negative. If we hear about a restaurant the food is good BUT, we tend to focus on the negative. We actually learn this profound lesson in our weekly parsha. The Torah describes the spies returning from the Land of Israel; they initially start describing the positive virtues. They then qualify their initial praise by uttering אפס or BUT.. They went on to talk about the power of the then-occupants of the land and how it would be difficult to defeat the natives. The people eagerly bought this pessimistic narrative, and the rest of it is history. One can reasonably ask, since the spies did not speak of anything that was an outright lie, why are they responsible for the report they delivered? This goes back to the most destructive word… BUT. Once the people heard the word BUT, they were unable to process anything positive about the Land of Israel. In this context, the most constructive word is “AND.” One can say that a person is sweet and kind but has a challenge with something else. That leaves the impression of a balanced perspective, with the positive feedback still remaining true. In our polarized world, we must be more careful than ever to use out language as a source of healing and support and not the opposite. One great way is to contemplate how often we utilize the word “BUT” in our conversation. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, June 21, 2024

What’s your primary identity?

Most people assume multiple identities in their lifetime. There is not necessarily anything inappropriate or contradictory about it. For example, a person may be a son, father, husband, lawyer, pickleball enthusiast, etc. People usually make important decisions and prioritize their time (life's most precious resource) based on how they view their primary identity. Many people struggle with this, especially as they transition throughout their life journey. For example, once a person gets married, he cannot spend as much time with his parents as he now has a new identity as a "husband." The parents or in-laws who tend to be "clingy" struggle with their child's new primary identity. A young husband may feel that when his wife starts paying attention to her new infant, he feels left out of the love triangle. I have been pondering how people rank their "Jewishness" within the list of all their identities. This question really determines what kind of Jewish life one will lead. For some, their being Jewish is near the top or the actual top identity. For others, it may be somewhat secondary or rather a peripheral identity. This is not to suggest that being Jewish is not important to them. It might be important, but against other priorities, it comes in second or third. For example, someone once told me they don't prioritize buying kosher food as they prioritize buying organic food, and they can't afford both kosher and organic, so they have to choose between what's more important to them. Or someone may say I would love to provide my child with a Jewish education, but I cannot afford it. That person may clearly value a Jewish education, but it may not be their top value. Since October 7, many Jews all over have woken up to a new reality. For years, their Jewish identity was somewhat secondary and peripheral and might have caused them to change their work schedule for three days a year. All of a sudden, other people were reminding them of their Jewishness and how important it is to their identity. This was true for thousands of Jewish students in the university. They previously defined themselves in so many ways that being Jewish was near the bottom of the list. Other people, including Hamas sympathizers, were confronting them about their Jewishness that was making them uncomfortable. If they were hated because they were Jewish and their association with Zion and Israel, perhaps they should take a deeper look at what it means to be Jewish. It's hard to be despised because of an identity you do not understand. If there's a silver lining in the post October 7 reality, it's this: thousands of Jews are awakening to reexamine their Jewish identity and roots. If you're witnessing this, I urge you not to be a bystander. It's our collective responsibility to provide nurturing support to our brothers and sisters who are rediscovering themselves. Let's foster an environment of understanding, outreach, and empathy where everyone feels safe to explore and embrace their Jewish identity. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, June 14, 2024

Agudath Israel of Florida Mission to Washington

Shver tsu zayn a Yid — It's hard to be a Jew, said the old Yiddish proverb. Many of us have verbalized this phrase for a long time in one iteration or another, from the Kosher consumer in the grocery store who realizes that record inflation does not even take the skyrocketing prices of kosher groceries into account. It also may be uttered by any one of tens of thousands of Jewish parents who are committed to providing a K-12 Jewish education to their children and realizing that their tuition bill is north of fifty thousand dollars. Since October 7, this phrase has been uttered by countless Jewish university students as they are physically bullied and intimidated by rising Jewish hatred. There is a fascinating insight at the beginning of this week's parsha that helps reframe the issue. The Torah articulates the different roles and responsibilities of the Levites, the spiritual custodians of the Mishkan. There were three primary families from the tribe of Levi, and each had distinct roles assigned. The three Levite families were Kehas, Gershon, and Merari. In describing the role of the family of Gershon, the Torah uses interesting language. The Torah states, זֹ֣את עֲבֹדַ֔ת מִשְׁפְּחֹ֖ת הַגֵּרְשֻׁנִּ֑י לַעֲבֹ֖ד וּלְמַשָּֽׂא. It is translated as, "These are the duties of the Gershonite families as to serve and porterage." Was this a noble service or a mundane task of schlepping (another Yiddish word)? One idea that is offered is that there are two general ways we can embrace our communal responsibilities in particular and obligations as Jews in general. We can view it as part of a higher calling that we have been chosen and have a special destiny in history. Part of having a higher calling comes with more responsibilities. If someone embraces this worldview, they can view their Jewish responsibilities as a privilege and badge of honor. Another view is to view responsibilities in life as a Jew as nothing short of a burden. Such a person will regularly lament about how burdensome or unfair it is to lead a Jewish life. The Torah taught the Gershon family that they can choose how to embrace their communal responsibilities. They can view them as a privilege for which they can be thankful, or as a burden for which they can resent. While we may not belong to the Gershon section of the tribe of Levi, we are regularly asked to choose how we view our approach to Jews. How is it for you? A privilege or a burden? Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, June 7, 2024

De Ja Vu All Over Again

I really dislike writing about difficult and painful topics, but the times we live in keep introducing us to new "lows." In case you missed it, this week in Jacksonville, a business located in the center of the city started flying a Nazi Swastika flag in the middle of broad daylight. The individual who put up the Nazi flag next to a Free Palestine flag claims that he loves people regardless of race or religion. He is merely trying to bring attention to Palestinians being killed in Gaza, which he equates with Jews being killed in the Holocaust. Let that sink in. In 2024 in Jacksonville, Florida, a Nazi Swastika is flying in broad daylight. There is so much to unpack here; knowing where to begin is hard. It's important to note that of course, this is perfectly legal and within his first amendment rights. (Contrast that with modern-day Germany Hate Speech Laws, where someone can go to prison for displaying a Swastika.) The larger point is that, as Yogi Berra once said, it's deja vu all over again. The unholy alliance between Palestinian Nationalism and Nazi ideology is not a new development. The infamous meeting between the Grand Mufti Haj Amin al Husseini met with Hitler in Germany in 1941. The Mufti offered Hitler his "thanks for the sympathy which he had always shown for the Arab and especially Palestinian cause, and to which he had given clear expression in his public speeches. The Arabs were Germany's natural friends because they had the same enemies as Germany, namely the Jews." Hitler replied: “Germany stands in an uncompromising war against Jews. That naturally included active opposition to the Jewish national home in Palestine. Germany would furnish positive and practical aid to the Arabs involved in the same struggle.” The Mufti thanked profusely thanked Hitler. The seeds of that pure and unadulterated hatred have been incubated into the Hamas ideology, and the chickens have come home to roost. On October 7, this ideology of hate was transformed into action and unleashed in a form the world has not seen since the Holocaust. In a sense, it should not have been surprising as this hatred goes back at least to the days of the Mufti and Hitler. This should debunk any notion that the so-called "resistance" is in response to the so-called "occupation" as the Mufti and Hitler formed their axis of evil well before the founding of the modern Jewish State. This week, we once again celebrate Shavuos, the anniversary of the divine transmission of the Torah from G-d to the Jews at Mt. Sinai. The Talmud offers an unusual insight into the name of Sinai. It explains that it is associated with the Hebrew word שנאה, which means hatred. The world's oldest hatred of antisemitism traces its roots back to Sinai when we became hated for accepting the mission of G-d in this world. Indeed, Hitler wrote that "conscience is a Jewish invention," and he would rid the world of that conscience. It was eighty years ago this week that the Allied Soldiers stormed the Beaches of Normandy to defeat the Nazis. Over 73,000 young men from the Greatest Generation made the ultimate sacrifice. Today, the soldiers of the IDF, many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice, are essentially fighting the same war, as the flag waver in Jacksonville has reminded us. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, "Hitler was not wrong when he called conscience a Jewish invention. That is one reason I am a Jew: a world, a nation, a religion that does not have room for Judaism or Jews is a world, a nation, a religion that does not have room for humanity. Have Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, May 24, 2024

Reflections on a Painful Tragedy

In light of a tragedy here in the community that leaves us feeling multiple layers of sadness and anguish, I will attempt to communicate some of my thoughts at this time. Firstly, we must offer unconditional love and support to the beloved Cohen family. It's unfathomable to begin to comprehend their pain, and there is very little that we can materially do to alleviate their anguish. Nonetheless, it is important for us as a community to let them know that they are not alone. The notion of one experiencing a heartbreaking tragedy is all the more raw and painful when one does experience it alone. The words of Tehilim/Psalms 13 resonate for us. King David wrote, עַד־אָנָה ה' תִּשְׁכָּחֵנִי נֶצַח עַד־אָנָה ׀ תַּסְתִּיר אֶת־פָּנֶיךָ מִמֶּנִּי: עַד־אָנָה אָשִׁית עֵצוֹת בְּנַפְשִׁי יָגוֹן בִּלְבָבִי יוֹמָם עַד־אָנָה ׀ יָרוּם אֹיְבִי עָלָי How long, Hashem, will You ignore me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long will I have cares in my mind, grief in my heart all day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? It is not sacrilegious to wonder how long the face of G-d will be concealed from us. This phase of Hester Panim has intensified since October 7 and the subsequent rise of rampant Jew-hatred. Unfortunately, this phase of Hester Panim extends on the personal level to an unspeakable tragedy that befell one of our families. As people of faith, this is acutely challenging as we are once again forced to reconcile how a benevolent G-d can allow such pain and suffering to righteous people. Unfortunately, we have a precedent with a grand celebration marred with tragedy, which is recorded in the Torah. As the Mishkan was being inaugurated after many months of great anticipation, tragedy struck with the unexpected death of Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron the Kohen Gadol. The Torah records Aaron's reaction as "Va'yidom Aaron," translated as Aaron being silent. With the unspoken words of Aaron, he was teaching us that there are times when words do not suffice when they can be unproductive. No words of comfort will assuage the collective pain in our hearts. We may be willing to accept the justice of G-d, but we know as long as we are in this world, we will never fully understand. For us, in the face of overwhelming tragedy, there is only one response for now: silence. As Aaron taught in the face of immense tragedy, silence may be the most profound communication. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, May 17, 2024

Pay Attention to the Dew

It's incredible how much the world can change in a few weeks, let alone a few months. As if October 7th wasn't enough for us to feel surrounded by enemies within our homeland, now, within weeks, as the college campus demonstrations spread like wildfire and even public high schools are allowed "Nakba" days in their halls, many of us feel surrounded by enemies even here in America. Despair and depression, given the current moment, are becoming rampant, made worse by the role America, which formerly seemed like our unconditional friend and ally, is now showing some cracks in the armor. I would like to suggest that while the world around us is not in our control, our internal world remains our domain. It is up to us to recognize the opportunity within our minds and hearts during these terrible times. Being subject to world hatred is not new to us. It is not out of the blue. And yet, because of this, we have a roadmap to help us navigate this complex landscape. Already in the Torah, within the tochacha ("rebuke") that we read in the Torah shortly before Shavuot, we have a deep contrast between the harshness of Hashem's rebuke and a statement of our eternal destiny. Although G-d paints us a picture of what will happen at our worst, He also commits to keeping us always at our best: to be bonded forever with Hashem, with a promise that He will never sever this bond. At the heart of our faith lies a profound divine commitment. It's an unbreakable promise of our eternity, a pledge that no matter how dire the circumstances, no force can succeed in our destruction. This commitment not only assures our eternal bond with Hashem but also presents us with an opportunity for introspection and strengthening of our faith during these challenging times. In the Book of Hoshea (14:4-6), we are told of the following prophecy: Assyria shall not save us, No more will we ride on steeds; Nor ever again will we call Our handiwork our god, Since in You alone orphans find pity!" I will be to Israel like dew; He shall blossom like the lily, He shall strike root like a Lebanon tree. We are reminded by these words that the nations of the world will not be there to save us with their great might (as represented by Assyria). Instead, it will be G-d who will heal us and take us back. How? Interestingly enough, not with imagery of strong horses and swift action. Instead, G-d is likened in this text to dew. The thing about dew is that people don't even realize it is there. It is such a light mist that people may not notice it at first. It is not giant torrents of water or loud cacophonies of rain like thunderstorms. Instead, dew is the gentlest manifestation of water, such that it might rest in tiny beads on your windshield in the morning or cling to your flower petals. And G-d tells us I will be this presence in your life. Even when you don't realize I am there, I am there clinging to you. At the end of the tractate of Sotah, the Mishna states, "We have no one to rely on other than our Father in Heaven." What this means is, that we know who is running the show, and that we should stop caring about the fickleness of the world's nations because they were never there for us to rely on in the first place. There is a difference between man and the Divine. Man is subject to changes in mood akin to the weather- emotions blow in and opinions blow out, and unfortunately, when you are dealing with flesh and blood, so do commitments. With Hashem, this is not so. We can rely on Him, we can believe in His power, and we can recommit our hearts to serving Him and trusting in Him and Him alone. Instead of succumbing to despair, let us view this as a chance to reaffirm our connection to our destiny, our fellow Jews, and our beloved Land of Israel. Our earliest history, as chronicled in our supreme guidebook, the Torah, foretold that the end of days wouldn’t be easy. We were destined to be a nation that dwells alone, yet in this aloneness, we are not truly alone. Stay strong and cultivate your inner world, your garden of faith, your love of your fellow Jew, and the land of our ancestors. Everything else is just noise. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, May 10, 2024

People Love Dead Jews

People Love Dead Jews. Dara Horn authored this book with this provocative title. Society is fascinated with the death of Jews but cares little for living Jews. To Horn, the destruction of world Jewry is a compelling historical narrative, but the current crisis of antisemitism is minimized. In a subsequent interview with The Atlantic, Horn argues that Western society prefers to tell stories about how Jews died rather than how they lived because "it's much easier to mold dead Jews into martyrs and morality tales than it is to coexist with living ones." A chilling example of this theory came to the forefront of the national arena. The President delivered remarks in observance of Yom HaShoah. He said, "'Never again,' simply translated for me, means never forget. Here we are, not 75 years later, but just seven-and-a-half months" since October 7, "and people are already forgetting." On the very same day, the WhiteHouse confirmed that it was withholding key weapons Israel needed to wage war against a genocidal enemy. Let that marinate. Israel is fighting an existential war that it did not ask for against an adversary that unabashedly calls for its destruction. Not to mention that this adversary is still holding over 130 hostages. Israel is told by its "greatest ally" that it will not be granted the weapons in this just cause. How can these actions be reconciled with the rhetoric of remembering October 7? While there can be different theories on disconnect, the words of Dara Horn ring accurate as for too many, Holocaust remembrance means feeling sad for the Jews. However, helping Israel defend itself with capabilities to bolster its defenses makes it equivocate. As a community of faith, we are reminded of the words from the Mishna, עַל מִי לָנוּ לְהִשָּׁעֵן עַל אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם. This is translated as (In the End of Days), upon whom should we rely? Only upon our Father in Heaven. The silver lining to all this upheaval is the benefit of gaining clarity. For years, many have thought the secret to the military strength in Israel was due to its reliance on its "best friend" or commitments that were "ironclad." The auspicious times we find ourselves in are an opportunity to turn again to the true Guardian of Israel, who can deliver us salvation. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Most Destructive Word in the English Language

I have always been intrigued by the “word of the year.” This last year of 2023, Merriam Webster designated “authentic” as the WOTY (word of ...