Thursday, May 14, 2020

A Sacred Time

With the ongoing effect that the virus has on all of us collectively, it has been a humbling experience for every sector across society. One of the primary lessons we have learned has been to appreciate the time in our lives. Indeed, our time is finite, and we as people are finite beings. In the past, we may have been so caught up in the daily grind and may have not utilized our time most productively. I believe as we reassess the most fundamental aspect of our lives, it is essential to ask ourselves, is our time in this world infused with goodness and Godliness?

There is a lengthy section in this week’s Parsha about the gift that we received to infuse our time in this manner. The Parsha teaches us about the various sacred times in Jewish life and begins with the Shabbos. It is folly to believe that the purpose of Shabbos is simply to rest because G-d rested. After all, G-d doesn’t need to rest since He is an infinite being! Rather, the Rabbis have taught us that the Rest that is related to G-d is a far different concept. It means that after six days of creation, the world was complete in a materialistic way. There were mountains and valleys, oceans and rivers and even lions, tigers and bears (oh my!). There was also the creation of Adam and Eve. Yet, the world was an empty shell as there was a limited manifestation of G-d’s presence. With the arrival of Shabbos, there was a manifestation of G-d’s presence in the world. This manifestation of Godliness was not limited to the first Shabbos in history. Rather, every single Shabbos, there is another opportunity to tap into this sacred space in time. One cannot overstate the incredible gift of Shabbos as we have the chance every week to elevate and infuse the precious time in our lives with meaning and purpose. Let us pay attention to this gift and realize how fortunate we are to have the Shabbos in our lives.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Preserving the Sacred Space

As society is itching to return to a normal life, it is worth asking what, if any, lessons we have learned from the pandemic. Everybody will draw their conclusions and expect the fingerpointing in the political arena to descend to a new low. From a spiritual perspective, it behooves us to ask ourselves what we have learned from this most unusual period. Indeed, there is no one correct answer to this, but I would like to share one angle in light of a startling passage in this weeks Parsha.

The Parsha begins by G-d instructing Moshe that one may not come to the holiest area of the Temple at any time. In fact, not only would the entrance to the Holy of Holies be permitted once a year, it was only sanctioned for the Kohein Gadol (High Priest) to enter this sacred space. For everyone else, it was forever off-limits. The notion of the holiest area in Judaism being off-limits to everyone besides the Kohein Gadol on one day a year sounds counter-intuitive. One would like to think, the more sacred the location, the more times we should frequent the area. In contemporary times, I like to think of the Kotel and how we are encouraged to visit as frequently as possible and yet in ancient times in the era of the Beis Hamikdash (Temple), the entrance tot he holiest area was prohibited!

The Rabbis teach us a compelling lesson, and that is the danger of losing one’s sensitivity to the sacredness of the area that may occur with one feeling too comfortable by frequenting the sanctuary. That is why the holiest place in Judaism was off-limits to everyone but the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). This lesson is something that has been gnawing at me since we were compelled to shut the doors of our shul in the face of COVID-19. The gift of individuals coming together to connect as a community in prayer has been temporarily removed from us. G-d willing, we will be able to resume our prayers in shul in the not too distant future. At that point, will we have internalized the preciousness of the Beis Haknesses/Sanctuary? Will our attitude be one of seriousness, or will a nonchalant, casual attitude reappear? If there is one thing that this uncertain period has taught us, it is to take nothing for granted. Let us remember the unique gift of praying in shul, and let is never treat it with anything than the highest respect it deserves.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Utilizing a Period of Reflection

The narrative of an individual that is diagnosed and sent into quarantine to engage in a period of healing before he can reenter society is the message of this week's Parsha. The person was diagnosed with Tzaaras, an affliction of the skin. The Torah teaches us that there are spiritual underpinnings for this physical condition. As part of the healing process, he must engage in solitude confinement. The purpose of this is not for the isolation to be punitive but rather for it to be an opportunity for reflection. The mandatory confinement for a period of reflection is an opportunity for growth as it allows a person to rethink their priorities in life and examine the choices that he regularly makes.

The current period has an uncanny resemblance to this Biblical message. In the year 2020, there are billions of people around the world who are in mandatory confinement and this is proven to be quite a challenge. However, as in our weekly Parsha, there is an excellent opportunity for growth as well. Like it or not, we have been thrown off-kilter and allows us to reflect. Such thoughts can include some uncomfortable internal questions about the things that matter the most to us. That should not be a deterrent to this self-scrutiny. Let us hope and pray that after this period of mandatory isolation, we rejoin society having utilized this period of reflection.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

I had been hoping to write my message this week on some reflections of a Purim holiday that was joyous in many different ways. This week is somewhat surreal as significant changes were occurring on an almost hourly basis due to the Coronavirus that is wreaking havoc on every corner in the world. Its impact is being felt on every aspect of society from the financial markets to the airline industry and much in between. This is a time that years from now, history will mark as remarkable as a global event. There are many different angles and perspectives on this virus, and I would like to share one here.
This crisis is upending many underlying assumptions that we have as a society. One of them is how much control we have in life. One of the sober realities that we are being confronted with is how vulnerable we are. The myth of Man in the twenty-first century who is all-powerful and has built up a robust economy, unparalleled technological advances with cutting edge in modern medicine have all come been seriously questioned. It just took a few microscopic pathogens to turn this world upside down. The truth is, although we may be shocked by the unraveling norms that we have come to expect as a society, this is not the first time this has occurred. Although it’s not a perfect analogy, the plagues that ancient Egypt suffered that are described in the Torah offer a compelling lesson. It tells us of a society that was a superpower of its time that went unchallenged by all and refused to recognize the hand of G-d in life. Indeed, G-d told Moses that the primary purpose of the plagues was not only to reinforce that there is a G-d who is a Creator but a G-d who manages daily affairs in the global arena as well. The Egyptians refused to believe how vulnerable they were until it was too late for them. The days ahead will be undoubtedly challenging and difficult. Instead of obsessively checking the news every few minutes, it may be worthwhile to spend a few extra moments on reflection and prayer. This hard reality about our vulnerabilities being exposed should hopefully cause us to turn to G-d in these difficult times.

Friday, February 28, 2020

The first Jewish fundraising campaign is found in this week's Parsha. The Israelites are told to bring forward raw materials for the construction of the Mishkan/Tabernacle. With the conveniences of a Super Walmart or Home Depot not available where did they procure all the materials for the building of the Mishkan? The precious metals such as gold, silver, and copper were part of the spoils that came from their time in Egypt. They were quite resourceful in securing all the rest of the materials that included the fine fabrics. There was one notable exception to this. The Atzei Shittim/Acacia Wood came from Israel. Rashi elaborates with the details. A couple of centuries prior to this event, when Yaakov was relocating to Egypt from Israel, he made it his business for this wood to be transported to Egypt for the eventual construction of the Mishkan. It seems to be quite a lesson in advance planning. Why was it necessary for Yaakov to shlep all this wood down to Egypt for an event two hundred years into the future? Were there other materials that were perhaps also worthy of such attention? 

The Atzei Shittim/Acacia wood was primarily used for the construction of the beams. This functioned quite literally as the foundation of the Mishkan/Tabernacle. Yaakov was teaching us a profound lesson. In regards to most things, one can be creative and under the appropriate circumstances, even compromise on certain things. However, in regards to the foundation, it must always emanate from a pure source, and one cannot compromise on a foundational issue. The Mishkan was the structure in which the Israelites come to connect as people to connect with G-d, and that is why our ancestors took great pains to bring the wood for this purpose. Our rabbis have taught that each individual is a Mishkan in the sense that there is a divine spark within everyone. That is our foundation of who are as people. Let us treat it with the honor and respect a holy foundation deserves. 

Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Thursday, February 20, 2020

There have been a handful of books that have made a significant impact on me in the journey of life. One of those is Let There Be Rain by Rabbis Finkelman and Wallerstein on the topic of gratitude. For several months we studied a daily lesson after morning minyan, and I was immeasurably enriched by it. Just waking up every morning and realizing everything is a privilege that we have to be appreciative and thankful for is invigorating. Not only that, but a person that is feeling grateful is full of happiness as he appreciates the blessings in life and anticipates that life will not always deliver perfection. The opposite viewpoint would be to view life with the lens of entitlement. A person that wakes up with that perspective and views everything is a right, and something that he is entitled to leads to being ungrateful when things inevitably will not be perfect. Furthermore, this leads to unhappiness and disillusionment with others as he expects everyone in his life to always deliver perfection with no margin of error.  

We find a great lesson on gratitude in this week's Parsha. The Torah teaches that the Treif Meat is prohibited for consumption. Surprisingly, the Torah does not just advise as to the prohibited status of treif meat but also in the manner in which one should dispose of the forbidden food. “ To the dog, you must throw it,” instructs the verse in Parshas Mishpatim. It seems rather odd that
the Torah takes pains of how to dispose of this forbidden food, especially considering that such advice is not dispensed with other forbidden foods. Rashi provides some necessary commentary on this rather bizarre passage. When the Jewish people had left Egypt, it was such a powerful moment that even the dogs did not bark. That is quite unusual since dogs typically react and bark to the slightest unusual occurrence, and there were several million people leaving in one night. Yet, this miracle occurred that even the dogs stood to attention and didn’t utter a peep. In recognition of this, dogs were rewarded that are the beneficiaries of treif meat since it is prohibited for consumption by Jews. It still seems a bit of stretch to somehow give a dog a piece of meat in 2019 in recognition and gratitude of what another dog may have accomplished over 3,300 years ago!

I believe the exercise in practicing gratitude with the gesture to the dog is primarily for ourselves. We become more cognizant of what others are doing for our benefit when we practice gratitude towards others. The Torah teaches that even when those practices are directed towards our four-legged friends, they are nonetheless valuable in making us more aware of the need to be grateful. 

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Indifference is not an Option

Finnish Lapland is as close as reality gets to those who dream of a winter wonderland. The contrasts in seasons are a key factor in the allure of Lapland, where 24-hour sunlight in the summer replaces the dark winter days. It is one of the must-see destinations on many people’s wish lists (including mine) to see the wonders of the world. This paradise on earth is looking a lot less attractive to visit as this area in Finland seems one of the latest casualties to be rocked by the coronavirus. The deadly virus has now spread to Lapland, a region stretching into the Arctic Circle that has seen an increase in Chinese tourism. A tourist visiting from Wuhan tested positive after reporting being ill to local health workers on Jan. 29. Officials sent an epidemiologist and a Chinese-speaking researcher north from Helsinki who helped track down 21 people who had been in contact with the tourist, said Jussi Sane, who coordinated the response from the country’s Department of Health Security. Many of the 21 possible contacts have also been placed in quarantine for 14 days. This Scandinavian country is about 5,000 miles away from Wuhan, China.

Meanwhile, in China, the country that boasts the world’s largest population, the authorities have gone into full-blown panic mode. The Chinese government has begun a mass roundup of its citizens in certain parts of the country to contain the virus. The orders to begin mass quarantines in Wuhan came down from the government last week to “round up everyone who should be rounded up,” part of a “wartime” campaign to contain the fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak. This potentially deadly virus is now a global menace that has thus far killed over 1,300 people. The financial impact is staggering as it dealt not only a massive blow to the mighty Chinese economy but to economies around the world. The Israeli government instructed health authorities to work toward a vaccination against the coronavirus. It approved plans to establish a vaccine factory in the country last week, amid the continued spread of the illness across the globe.

Maimonides writes in the Laws of Public Fasting that when society is faced with a calamity, one is obligated to begin a process of reflection and introspection. That should lead a person to prayer and a call to the Almighty to bring an end to the devastation. If one takes the opposite approach and chooses to be indifferent and says it is a mere coincidence, the Maimonides writes that not only is this a lost opportunity but downright dangerous. This is because he writes, G-d is trying to wake up the masses, and we must take note. If we intentionally ignore the warning signs, the Maimonides writes that the situation can further deteriorate. It’s important to note that historically the Maimonides was known for his rationalist approach to life. He was known to be a fear monger or superstitious in the slightest.

I sense that we are at a pivotal moment here. The largest country in the world is at its knees because of a virus that emanated from a bat or a snake. Let us take a moment or two to reflect, introspect, and pray that this menacing virus comes to an end once and for all.

A Sacred Time

With the ongoing effect that the virus has on all of us collectively, it has been a humbling experience for every sector across society. One...