Friday, April 16, 2021

My Heart Is In The East

דרש רבי שמלאי מפני מה נתאוה משה רבינו ליכנס לא"י וכי לאכול מפריה הוא צריך או לשבוע מטובה הוא צריך אלא כך אמר משה הרבה מצות נצטוו ישראל ואין מתקיימין אלא בא"י אכנס אני לארץ כדי שיתקיימו כולן על ידי As Israel celebrates its Independence Day, Jews worldwide reflect on what Zion and Jerusalem mean to them. For thousands of years, we have concluded our Pesach Seder and Yom Kippur Service with the uplifting words of “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Under the chuppah, as a couple starts a new life together and their hearts are filled with joy, there is a practice of breaking a glass to demonstrate that their joy is incomplete as long as Jerusalem is not rebuilt. The Talmud (original is quoted above) questions why Moshe so desperately wanted to enter the Land of Israel. For forty years, Moshe encouraged and inspired the Jewish People not to give up hope about the promise that they would enter the Land of Israel. In heartbreaking irony, as everyone would be crossing the Jordan to enter the Promised Land, Moshe would die at the border and not make it into sacred territory. The Talmud probes why Moshe desperately wanted to enter the Land of Israel? Was it to taste the delicious fruits and vegetables? Anyone that has been to Israel knows that the quality of the fruits and vegetables is totally superior to anywhere else! The Talmud responds that Moshe had a burning desire to enter the Land of Israel as one can fulfill multiple more Mitzvahs in Israel than any place in the world. The deeper meaning behind Moshe’s quest was that the more Mitzvahs a person fulfills, that enhances his ability to connect with G-d in this world. Moshe was teaching all of us this fundamental truth in Judaism. The ideal place for a Jew to live and spend their time in this world is the Land of Israel. Whatever one feels about the Zionist movement and the State of Israel, it is clear to anyone with eyes and ears that we are witnessing a miracle in front of our eyes. The rebirth of Torah and religious life that is taking place in our ancient homeland would be a mere fantasy to our great grandparents just a few generations back. We hope and pray for the day when we will all return to a rebuilt Beis Hamikdash in Jerusalem. Until than, while we may be physically here, our hearts remain back in Israel.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Making the Most of Everyday

2020 was a strange year in many ways that needs no elaboration. Anecdotally, there was quite an unusual film that was produced at the end of 2020 by Disney called Soul. For decades, the same mass media and entertainment conglomerate that brought us Cinderella and the Beauty and the Beast now presented us with a compelling story that focused on having a neshama/soul and the meaning of life. It's an animated film about this high school teacher Joe Gardner, a pianist and middle school music teacher living in New York City, who dreams of playing jazz professionally. His mother Libba insists that he make his teaching job full time, fearing for his financial security. One day, Joe learns of an opening in the band of jazz legend Dorothea Williams and auditions at a music club. On his way there, he accidentally falls into a manhole and dies. As his soul leaves this world and goes to the next world, he learns that jazz and piano aren't the sole purposes for his existence. By being obsessed by his dreams' lack of success, he has forgotten how to live a fulfilled life and therefore lost that spark. Joe is ultimately given a second chance to come back to this world and declares, "this time, I'm going to live every minute of it."  There is an essential lesson in making the most of every day. Each day that we are fortunate to live and breathe is a blessing, and we would be wise to take advantage of it. I believe that is also an important message behind the Mitzvah to count the Omer every day between Pesach and Shavuos. It is not enough to count the days. We must make our days count. Every single day is precious that is not returning. We can accomplish so much in just one day. The blessing that we make before counting the Omer of, אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו על ספירת העומר The translation is we acknowledge G-d, who sanctified us by providing us with His mitzvos to count the Omer. When we recite the blessing, I suggest that we pause and reflect on the tremendous gift we merit to experience another day and commit to utilizing it in the best way possible. King David put it best when he said, זֶה־הַיּוֹם עָשָׂה ה' נָגִילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה בוֹ " This day G-d created, let us rejoice and be happy with it." Let us make the most of every day!

Friday, March 19, 2021

Do you hear the call?

We begin this week not only a new parsha but a new sefer as we begin to read from the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus). It opens up with the words “Vayikra el Moshe” or “ And He Called to Moshe”. Many of the commentaries have pointed out that though it’s obvious from the text that it’s G-d that called out to Moshe, it doesn’t explicitly say so as it typically does in other textual settings. The Nesivos Shalom quotes the Midrash that there is a heavenly voice that emanates from Mount Sinai on a daily basis and exhorts the Jewish people to repentance. He questions this by asking why can’t we hear this voice that’s emanating from Sinai and if we can’t hear it what’s the point of it being declared? He writes the following profound idea. There is a spiritual energy being released in the world on a daily basis. Some of us make the choice to capitalize on these sparks and internalize them into our soul. This enables us to embark on a journey on self-improvement in this world and allows our soul to connect to G-d in this finite and temporary world through meaningful Torah study, heartfelt prayer, and practicing acts of kindness. Some of us take a look at these spiritual sparks and even experience the spiritual energy that originates from Sinai and just take a pass for whatever reason. Then their souls lie dormant and become atrophied and dehydrated. Unfortunately, this can lead someone to feel that his life has no meaning or purpose. Can anyone say mid-life crisis? That is our challenge. The voice is calling each and every one of us. The only question is, who is going to answer the call? Have a Wonderful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, March 5, 2021

Part of a Bigger Whole

The ancient method of conducting a census was rather strange. Instead of counting heads or writing down the names of all people that were eligible to be counted, there was another unobvious method that carried by our ancestors in the desert after they left Egypt. As our Parsha teaches us, they were told to bring forward a half-shekel coin and contribute that into the public coffers. The amount of the coins contributed would reflect the number of people that needed to be counted. The question still remains to be asked as to why everyone was asked to contribute a half-shekel and not a complete shekel? There are many different answers to this question, and I want to suggest an approach I heard a while back. There are many different ways and paths within the parameters of Halacha of service to G-d. While many people walk down different paths, some prefer to emphasize their personal service or niche in one area more than another. Some areas that I referring to but obviously are not limited to include the study of Torah, prayer, practicing kindness, love of Israel, Kabbalah, Tikkun Olam, etc. We sometimes tend to get so preoccupied in our personal avoda/service that we might not appreciate what others are doing for the Jewish people and bring us closer to G-d. The Half- Shekel lesson teaches us that we are not alone in our service and relationship to G-d but rather part of a greater whole. While it may be wonderful that you are diligent and even excel at what you are doing to help the Jewish People, please remember that others focus on a different task on assisting Klal Yisrael. Just because they are not practicing the same task does not mean there should not be a recognition that we are just part of a greater whole of the Jewish people. For example, in an ideal world, the yeshiva students who are the spiritual guardians with their study of the Torah would be respecting the soldiers of the IDF who are are the physical guardians of the Jewish state. The opposite should be true as well. Sadly, that is not the case. Each side doesn’t recognize the achievement of the other. The lesson of the Half Shekel is more timeless than ever in reminding us that we are just part of a greater bigger picture.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Faith Behind the Mask

As Jews worldwide celebrate Purim this year, we roughly mark the one-year anniversary of COVID making its mark here in the United States. In somewhat of a sad irony, we have been wearing masks all year and not just in observance of Purim. There is a powerful message that we learn from the Megillah that I believe has a special meaning this year in light of the challenges that we are experiencing. There are so many layers of challenges. I would like to focus on the challenge on our faith. We struggle to reconcile how a just and benevolent G-d can allow such pain and suffering to run unabated during a global pandemic. In one way or another, we have cried out and said -- “Almighty G-d, where are you”? The Rabbis make teach us a powerful lesson about Megilas Esther as it’s unique among all the Books of Tanach. There is not one mention of G-d’s name in the Megila. That sounds pretty strange. One might think that as one of the volumes of the Bible, it would have the name of G-d referenced in it even it was a mild reference. This omission was intentional. The lesson the Rabbis teach us is that the Purim miracle was done in a covert fashion yet it was still the hand of G-d that instrumental in orchestrating certain key events. For example, how likely that a young Jewish woman would end up being selected as the new queen? In fact, the Talmud, address this by stating, אסתר מן התורה מנין ואנכי הסתר אסתיר. The translation is, where there is a reference to Esther in the Torah. The response is a verse in the Book of Devarim which states that G-d says that I will conceal My face on that day. The larger message here is that miracle of Purim was unlike earlier miracles in Jewish history. The story with Mordechai and Esther could have read as a novel with a villain and the heroine coming through at the right time for her people. A bunch of coincidences that just happen to add up. The Rabbis teach us it is precisely for that reason the name of G-d is not mentioned in the Megilah. To teach us this supremely important fundamental tenet of Judaism: the presence of G-d may be concealed but His salvation may always be at a moment’s notice. There have been many long days and nights over the past year in which the tragic news piled up, yet we are a people of faith and believe in better days ahead. As we say in our prayers, מי שענה למרדכי ואסתר בשושן הבירה הוא יעננו, May the One who answered Mordechai and Esther in Shushan, answer us as well!!

Friday, February 19, 2021

Dealing with Donor Fatigue

One of the fixtures of modern Jewish life that has caused us fatigue is fundraisers. Every Jewish not-for-profit organization is inherently operating at a deficit, so the solution seems to be a fundraiser. There are so many worthy causes both locally and abroad and we get solicited all the time and that it results in donor fatigue. Someone commented that one of the benefits of COVID was that he and his spouse didn’t feel compelled to go to so many charity events. Those comments particularly saddened me. With the advent of the matching campaigns that are now quite popular, several of these campaigns reach out to me several times a month, and I understand the challenge of trying to stay motivated and financially afloat to participate in all these mitzvah opportunities. The truth is that we can learn an important lesson from the first fundraising campaign in Jewish history, and that is the construction of the Mishkan/Tabernacle. G-d in communicating the directive to Moshe says וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְרוּמָה This is literally translated as you shall take for Me a donation. This sounds like a strange way of articulating a solicitation. Wouldn’t it be much more straight forward to say ויתנו לי or you shall give Me? The Rabbis throughout the millennia, have suggested a simple yet profound message. When we are presented with an opportunity to share our material resources for a good cause we ultimately are the beneficiary. Although it may appear that we are the benefactors, the opposite is true. The truth is that all the material wealth that we possess in this world is not truly ours, we are merely the stewards over that. Every once in a while there is an economic crisis in which we are rudely reminded of this truth (Can anyone say COVID?). G-d in His infinite wisdom gives us many opportunities to be givers and share our material resources with others. The Talmud in the Tractate of Bava Basra states that someone challenged Rabbi Akiva and asked him if G-d really loves the poor, why does He not directly provide them sustenance? His response was to allow us to do this Mitzvah. I think of this question in the modern language. If G-d loved the shuls, yeshivas, day schools, Bais Yaakovs, Mikvaos, etc., why is there always such a dearth of funds available? Why are there so many fundraising campaigns? The answer in 2021 is just the same as it was during the time of the Mishkan and during the time of Rabbi Akiva -- to allow us the opportunity to give.

Monday, February 15, 2021

A Lesson In Gratitude

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 last year, 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 through the lens of entitlement. A person that wakes up with that perspective and views everything as 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 normally 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 a 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.

My Heart Is In The East

דרש רבי שמלאי מפני מה נתאוה משה רבינו ליכנס לא"י וכי לאכול מפריה הוא צריך או לשבוע מטובה הוא צריך אלא כך אמר משה הרבה מצות נצטוו ישראל ...