Thursday, November 14, 2019

An Individual's Response to Rocket Fire

The past few days have been trying times for millions of people living in Southern and Central Israel. The barrage of rockets that have been unleashed from the terror infrastructure in Gaza has caused many anxious residents to scurry for the nearest shelter. It would be unthinkable to think of any sovereign nation that would have to tolerate such an attack in its civilian population. It would be a near certainty for the country to go to war with the mission of destroying the enemy, and there would be international understanding if not outright support. Yet, this is Israel, which is facing the attacks, and besides a couple of notable exceptions, there has been a lot of indifference and even outright condemnation towards Israel from other countries. Consider the reaction of Jordan, which has a peace treaty with Israel, who had this response to the Israeli strike in the Gaza Strip that killed a top Islamic Jihad commander. It released a statement blaming Israel for the ensuing escalation in violence. And this is coming from a country that has a peace treaty with Israel! It’s rather easy to get demoralized when thinking about the constant threats that Israel faces from multiple different borders and not to mention the existential threat that it faces from bad actors in the region. In light of the situation, it’s vital that one does not feel helpless but rather practically think of something to do. I want to suggest a couple of things:

Prayer. It’s important not to become desensitized and believe that this situation has been going on for a long time, and the status quo will be here indefinitely. Our Rabbis have taught that in times of need, we should pour hearts out to our Father in Heaven and ask for heavenly protection for our brothers and sisters in harm’s way. The Chief Rabbi of Israel, David Lau, visited the residents of Southern Israel and said the following. “We’ve merited to live in the land about which the Torah testifies: ‘The land which the eyes of Hashem your G-d are on it from the beginning of the year until the end of the year.’ The eyes of G-d are on it, and we see and hear sounds of explosions slightly south and east from here. They’re firing at us without regard to men, women, and children, but they’re firing at those protected by the Iron Dome of the Creator of the Word.” Let us spend a few moments during our prayer to focus on those in harm’s way as the power of prayer is compelling and significant.

2 Advocacy. The majority of the rockets did not cause injury or harm despite the barrage of nearly 400 rockets being fired in a couple of days. A good part of the reason for that is the Iron Dome that is deployed throughout Israel. The Iron Dome is an air defense system used by Israel to intercept and destroy short-range rockets, artillery shells and mortars fired from distances of up to 45 miles. Each Iron Dome battery costs about $100 million; Israel currently has nine batteries. And each Iron Dome Tamir missile that Israel fires — and usually two are sent up to intercept each descending rocket — costs at least $50,000. The United States has provided financial assistance to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars for the development of the Iron Dome. This did not happen in a vacuum. This was the result of an ongoing advocacy effort by individuals and organizations that communicated the importance of Israel’s security to members of Congress. The leading organization involved in this effort is AIPAC. It’s important for us to recognize this and join their efforts so we can do our part in ensuring peace and security in the Jewish State. 

Have a Great Shabbos,
Rabbi Yaakov Fisch 

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Has the promise panned out?

This week we are reintroduced to arguably the most important person in the History of the Jewish People, and that is Abraham. We learn about this individual who left his hometown and comfortable surroundings at the age of 75 to an unknown land. When he arrives in the rocky and barren land of Canaan, he experiences a closeness to G-d as he had never felt. It was an incredible manifestation of G-d’s presence, which was unparalleled to any other location on earth.
G-d than communicated to Abraham that his descendants will inherit this auspicious land. That is the beginning of our people’s story in which G-d declared that the descendants of Abraham would be the chosen people. He also promised Israel would be their homeland in which its people can connect to G-d and his Torah in a spiritually conducive environment. Abraham and his wife Sarah, are interred in the Machpelah Cave in Hebron, and Jews continue to travel there to seek that closeness to G-d.

A fair question would be, has that promise panned out, and in what way? I recall the beginning of the History of Jews by Paul Johnson, who writes the following:

Hebron has great and venerable beauty. It provides peace and stillness often to be found in ancient sanctuaries. But its stones are mute witnesses to constant strife and four millennia of religious and political disputes. It has been in turn a Hebrew shrine, a synagogue, a Byzantine basilica, a mosque, a crusader church, and then a mosque again. Herod the Great enclosed it with a majestic wall, which still stands, soaring nearly 40 feet high, composed of massive hewn stones, some of them 23 feet long. Saladin adorned the shrine with a pulpit. Hebron reflects the long, tragic history of the Jews and their unrivaled capacity to survive their misfortunes. David was anointed king there. When Jerusalem fell, the Jews were expelled and it was settled by Edom. It was conquered by Greece, then by Rome, converted, plundered by the Zealots, burned by the Romans, occupied in turn by Arabs, Franks and Mamluks. From 1266 the Jews were forbidden to enter the Cave to pray. They were permitted only to ascend seven steps by the side of the eastern wall. On the fourth step they inserted their petitions to God in a hole bored 6 feet 6 inches through the stone. Even so, the petitioners were in danger. In 1518 there was a fearful Ottoman massacre of the Hebron Jews. But a community of pious scholars was re-established. It maintained a tenuous existence, composed, at various times, of orthodox Talmudists, of students of the mystic kabbalah, and even of Jewish ascetics, who flogged themselves cruelly until their blood spattered the hallowed stones. Jews were there to welcome, in turn, the false Messiah, Shabbetai Zevi, in the 1660s, the first modern Christian pilgrims in the eighteenth century, secular Jewish settlers a hundred years later, and the British conquerors in 1918. The Jewish community, never very numerous, was ferociously attacked by the Arabs in 1929. They attacked it again in 1936 and virtually wiped it out. When Israeli soldiers entered Hebron during the Six Day War in 1967, for a generation not one Jew had lived there. But a modest settlement was re-established in 1970. Despite much fear and uncertainty, it has flourished. So when the historian visits Hebron today, he asks himself: where are all those peoples which once held the place? Where are the Canaanites? Where are the Edomites? Where are the ancient Hellenes and the Romans, the Byzantines, the Franks, the Mamluks and the Ottomans? They have vanished into time, irrevocably. But the Jews are still in Hebron.

Four thousand years later, G-d’s promise to Abraham is still being realized. Let us never lose sight of this gift to us.

Have a Great Shabbos,
Rabbi Yaakov Fisch 

Thursday, October 31, 2019

First Things First

As time has progressed and the years go by, it seems we are getting busier than ever and being faced with more choices all the time. For example, the average home in the United States has a television that receives 189 channels. That seems to be a quite high number and a radical departure from the 3 or 4 channels available on the dial on their TV not too long ago. I see this in the produce section of the grocery store as well, where there are not just tomatoes, but multiple different kids that include; beefsteak, cherry, grape, vine-ripened tomatoes, roma, ugly ripe, and the list goes on and on.

I think about this as we have emerged from the High Holiday season and the Jewish New Year, and we have once again reflected on how we can engage in self-improvement. Yet, as we resume our daily routine and activities, we are once again facing the same long list of things to do, and our noble aspirations for the New Year have once again been relegated to the back burner.

There is a powerful insight from this week’s portion about the importance of setting priorities or “First Things First,” as Stephen Covey calls it. In the aftermath of the devastating flood that literally destroyed the civilization of the world, there is a veiled rebuke of Noah. The Torah refers to him as a “Man of the Earth who planted a vineyard.” This is a departure from his earlier claim to fame as a “Righteous Man”. Now he was just a man of the earth since he was planting a vineyard for the ultimate purpose of having wine to drink. Many have questioned this unusually harsh perspective on Noah. After all, this was a man who was holed up for a year on the ark with all sorts of animals, and he comes out of the ark and finds a destroyed world. Who can begrudge or criticize the man for wanting a nice glass of wine?

There is a compelling lesson in priorities learned from this episode. Of course, there would be nothing wrong with Noah having some wine to drink after an extraordinarily stressful year. The mistake he made was in setting his priorities. This was the immediate aftermath of the flood which destroyed the world because of Man’s follies. As he emerged from the ark and began to live again, there surely were more severe and critical undertakings that Noah could have started that would improve society as a whole. The notion of him hitting the reset button by planting a vineyard to make some wine from was a missed opportunity in setting appropriate priorities. Let’s hope that we can be mindful of this story as we are faced with endless choices, and we are challenged to set our priorities as well.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Understanding the Process

It seems that a broad consensus of people agree that Monday is their least favorite day of the week. Who can blame them? After a weekend of leisure, one must return to the workplace on Monday and another week of blah. For students, it’s their first day back at school after a weekend of fun and who can blame them for feeling less than enthusiastic for a return to the classroom. Some have said that was the genius of the NFL to come up with Monday Night Football to take away some of the early week despondency. It turns out that the feeling of getting the blues on Monday may have Biblical roots. In this week’s parsha of Bereishis, we learn about the creation of the world. On every day of creation, after G-d saw what had been created, He declared, “Ki Tov/it was good.” This declaration of “Ki Tov” was announced on every single day of creation except one. Can you guess which day had the glaring omission of G-d’s declaration that it was good? If you guessed Monday, then you are correct. The second day of the week may be associated with getting the blues for all time, for it lacked G-d’d declaration that all was good. On a more serious note, Rashi comments that the declaration of Ki Tov was omitted on Monday simply because the creation of the water was incomplete in terms of its assigned location. That aspect was completed on Tuesday, and indeed, G-d made the declaration of Ki Tov twice on Tuesday.

It seems that there is a larger message is about understanding the importance of the process. This is especially important in our generation when we are becoming accustomed to instant results and satisfaction all the time. It was just a few decades ago that the microwave oven was invented, and now it occupies space in practically every kitchen in America because we need things cooked in no time. The opposite of that is the crockpot, which is a slow cooker. Some dishes need to undergo a process of a slow cooker in order to achieve perfection. If you put these dishes in a microwave, the results would be disastrous. The same applies to anything meaningful in life, from spiritual growth to child-rearing. While we may desire instant results, we must understand there is a process to succeed. In fact, G-d reminded us of this on the first Monday in the history of the world by telling us that sometimes we must wait until Tuesday to hear Ki Tov.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Shabbos Shuva

The Shabbos between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is famous for being referred to as Shabbos Shuva. The primary reason for this name is that the Haftorah that is read begins with this word, Shuvah. The truth of the matter is, not only is the word Shuva the root of the famous word or idea Teshuva, it is a fundamental idea in Judaism. The meaning of Shuva is return. The puzzling thing about understanding Shuvah or returning, is where exactly are we returning to? Did we get lost from any particular place that we need to return to? As far as I can tell, if I am not lost, there is no need to return anywhere.

The idea of Shuva touches on a much deeper concept regarding body and soul. Throughout our lives, our bodies and souls are in conflict with one another. The body just craves earthly pleasures since it is just a product from the earth. However, the soul craves spiritual desires since it is a product of the heavens where Almighty G-d resides. The more the body is taken care of and nurtured, and the soul is neglected, the soul will feel empty and shallow. If this goes on for a while, a person may live with many external riches but feel an internal emptiness precisely because his soul has been neglected. Can anyone say mid-life crisis? This is where Shuvah comes in. It’s a message to tell your soul to return to its calling of connecting to the service of G-d. The soul ultimately wants to connect, but it’s the distractions of the materialistic world that get in the way. Shuvah says don’t pay attention to all the distractions. Just let your soul connect to its original mission. It would be a great message all year round but especially poignant a few days before Yom Kippur.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Not Just a Cup of Coffee

One of the most cherished gifts that many people look forward to in the morning is that hot fresh cup of coffee. Indeed, for many of us, the day cannot really begin without that cup of joe. It can really make the difference between not only a good or bad morning but our day may feel off if we don't have that cup of coffee in the morning hours. Being that it’s such an important part of our lives, are thankful enough for that? There was an individual named A. J. Jacobs who not only wanted to thank his barista for making his morning coffee but he set out on a journey around the world to thank all the people involved in the process of making his coffee. All told, he found over 1,000 people involved in the process and thanked them all. He wrote a bestselling book a Gratitude Journey to record this exercise. It was not nearly as simple as he thought as a myriad of folks were involved in making his coffee a reality including the Minnesota miners who extract the iron that makes the steel used in coffee roasters, to the Madison Avenue marketers who captured his wandering attention for a moment, to the farmers in Colombia. Jacobs also discovers that his coffee and every other item in our lives would not be possible without hundreds of people we usually take for granted: farmers, chemists, artists, truckers, mechanics, biologists, miners, smugglers, and goatherds.

In this week's parsha we learn about the mitzva of Bikkurim which teaches us about bringing the first fruits to Jerusalem as an expression of thanksgiving to G-d for the bounty that we have received for that year. This is not just any mitzva. In fact, the first prayer a Jew says in the morning is Modeh Ani/ I give thanks to G-d for another day. Gratitude is a fundamental value in Judaism. Mr. Jacobs who did the gratitude exercise on coffee and wrote the book ironically refers to himself as agnostic but he has taught us all a deeply religious lesson in faith and in being a mensch.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Greetings from Poland!

It’s with a heavy heart that I address you from land that has seen millions of Jews simply murdered in cold blood from the face of the earth. Part of me didn’t want to make this trip and see the worst part of our history up close and in person, just as part of me doesn’t want to observe Tisha B’av to mourn for our national tragedies. I then realized it was imperative to get a fuller understanding of our people’s story, and we must take an unpleasant look at the “hidden face of G-d.” These are some of the lessons I learned from spending four days in Poland.

Never Take Anything for Granted: It is hard to fathom the devastation until one actually gets here and gets to touch, feel, and breathe the reality of what occurred. In 1939, Warsaw was home to the second largest Jewish Community in the world with over 330,000 people and 800 synagogues. Today there are a tiny handful of Jews left with one remaining shul, and that is the one the Nazis chose not to destroy since it was used as a stable. Today it is once again a functional shul as I had the opportunity to participate in minyan there on Tuesday morning this week. Otherwise, the once vibrant and proud community has all but disappeared. The rich and meaningful Jewish life that was woven into the history of Poland goes back nearly a thousand years. There were great moments for the Jewish People in Poland as well. In fact, a few centuries earlier, Poland was seen as a place of refuge for Jews escaping from persecution in Western Europe. There was official Jewish representation in the Polish parliament including chasidic representatives as late as the 1920’s. Well, things can change pretty quickly as the lessons from the 1930’s taught us. The fact that a nation that was benevolent to the Jews for centuries now has over three million Jews’ blood-soaked in its soil should cause us to pause and reflect.

I Was There: We live in a time when the Holocaust survivors among us are fading away. There are fewer and fewer survivors among the living who will be able to look into the eyes of the uneducated and skeptics and say, “I was there. I experienced the hells of Auschwitz-Birkenau and had my arm tattooed”. Soon we must grapple with the reality that there will not be any first-hand accounts. There are no substitutes for that. However, the next best thing may be a personal visit to the Nazi concentration and death camps. After I exited the crematorium in the Madajanek Concentration Camp, the tour guide bent down and picked up some bone fragments and some ash from the ground. We walked a little further and saw the memorial established at Madajanek, and there is a large mound with human ash still there. There may not be any living survivors around for much longer, but anybody that dares to visit Madajanek can look someone in the eyes and confidently say- I was there!

We Will Outlive Them: One of the towns we visited was Lublin, which was a citadel of Torah. The famed Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin headed by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the founder of Daf Yomi, was located there. There was a compelling story I heard from our tour guide, Rabbi Ilan Segal that I would like to share with you. One time prior to a group of Jews getting rounded up for being killed, the Nazi commander demanded that they start singing and dancing. At first, the Jews were in no mood to sing and dance and certainly in no mood to placate the sadistic Nazi. Soon the Jews started singing in Yiddish” מען וועט זיי איבערלעבען/ we will outlive them.” The song seems a little foolhardy as they were shortly put to their deaths. Yet, at a closer reflection after 75 years the Nazis have long been defeated, and the Jewish People in general and the Torah scholarship from Lublin with the Daf Yomi, in particular, has been growing in strength. Right up the road the in Krakow the Bais Yaakov movement was started by Sarah Schneir which now has tens of thousands of girls and young women in its thriving educational network. It’s seventy-five years later, where you might ask are the Nazis today that taunted the Jews in Lublin that day? Relegated to the dustbin of history. We have outlived them after all. Am Yisroel Chai!

An Individual's Response to Rocket Fire

The past few days have been trying times for millions of people living in Southern and Central Israel. The barrage of rockets that have been...