Friday, September 22, 2023

Returning to Yourself

The Shabbos between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is famous for being referred to as Shabbos Shuva. The basic 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 in any particular place to return to? As far as I can tell, there is no need to return anywhere if I am not lost. The idea of Shuva touches on a much deeper concept regarding body and soul. Our bodies and souls conflict with one another throughout our lives. The body craves earthly pleasures since it is just a product of the earth. However, the soul craves spiritual pleasures since it is a product of the heavens where Almighty G-d resides. The more the body is taken care of and nurtured, the more the soul is neglected, the soul will feel empty and shallow. If this continues 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 the distractions of the materialistic world get in the way. Shuvah says don't pay attention to the materialistic 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. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, September 1, 2023

Lethal Hate

The lethal mix of unadulterated hate and unrestricted access for virtually anyone to obtain assault rifles reached our backyard. It was with great sadness that we learned of an individual who killed three people in a racially motivated attack. The murder weapon had insignias of swastikas etched on it. Let that sink in slowly. In 2023, someone from Clay County is so committed to Nazi ideology that he can murder three innocent African American members in broad daylight while they are shopping for groceries. It's essential to stand in solidarity with the local African-American community as they are reeling and hurting from this awful tragedy. As a Jewish community, unfortunately, we have too often been at the other end of similar tragedies, and we have also been forced to bury members of our community because of this unadulterated hate. In 1996, there was a wave of suicide bombings in Jerusalem on the busy Jaffa Street. Particularly, there were coordinated bombings on the number 18 bus line. I recall hearing from someone in Jerusalem at the time they were not concerned for their safety as they did not travel on the number 18 bus! Obviously, that is a sad perspective that reflects one that does not grasp the severity of the situation. Similarly, it's important to understand that haters who target one minority group express hostility to our community. Burying our heads in the sand may provide temporary comfort, but it's an unwise method to address reality. Hateful ideology continued to kill Jews in Israel this month, as five Jews were murdered in terror attacks in the month of August alone. My intent here is not to cause worry or depression but rather to open our eyes to debunk any illusion that we are immune from hate that can cause harm. As our patriarch Yaakov taught, in the face of threats, one must adopt a three-tiered approach of focusing on prayer, diplomacy, and self-defense. Let us double down on embracing this formula as we continue to walk between the raindrops. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, August 25, 2023

The Art of Listening

Silly season is (un)officially here. America is unique in many ways, including its painfully long election season. In most democratic countries, the election for the highest office in the land is no more than a few weeks. It can be at least a couple of years in the United States. It sometimes feels like about a decade of sitting in a dentist's chair! A significant milestone in the 2024 Presidential Election was the Republican Debate this week. I recognize that I am not qualified to weigh in on who won the debate or who is the best candidate (not necessarily the same). I will opine about the tenor of the dialogue from the debate. Many of the debate participants were basically attempting to talk over each other and shout down the others with well-rehearsed one-liners and zingers that were filled with ridicule and insult to each other. One element that was fairly absent from the debate was anyone listening to each other. The art of listening is an increasingly lost skill. Most people, even if they are listening, are not adequately paying attention to the other person and just formulating their own response. The Gaon of Vilna teaches us how to master the art of listening and its three components. Listening: Pay attention to what the person is saying without interrupting. Appropriate body language of nodding and making eye contact reflects that you are attempting to fully understand what the person is saying. Understanding: Ask follow-up questions to ensure you understand what the person is saying. These questions mustn't be challenging in any way but instead just an attempt to clarify and understand what the person may be saying. It might also be appropriate to respond with a few words indicating you have a keen understanding of what the person may be saying. Accepting: The third element may be the most difficult, especially if you strongly disagree with the other person. Accepting does not mean that you agree with another point of view. Instead, it means that you accept that this is his viewpoint and accept that you might not be aligned with your opinion. It's ok to disagree if it's done in a respectful environment. We must accept that in a diverse world, there are various ways to look at things and figure out a way to disagree in the arena of Derech Eretz. As we are in the month of Elul in preparation for the High Holidays, we are encouraged to mend fences with anyone we locked horns with over the year. Of course, the journey to reconciliation and leaking may take work. It may just start with being open to listening to others. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, August 18, 2023


Weaponization. This word is on track to be the word of the year! Every time there is another indictment against the former president, about half the country laments about the weaponization of the justice system. On a literal level, the justice system is supposed to be weaponized and capable of prosecuting individuals committing crimes. The weaponization charge intends that it is entirely misdirected and inappropriate utilization of the justice system. Far be it for me to weigh in on such a loft matter! I do, however, have a nomination for a real-life case that has become weaponized. A judge in Montana issued a ruling in the case of Held Vs. Montana, that leads me to believe we live in an alternate reality. The background to the case is that a group brought a lawsuit against the state on behalf of a group of plaintiffs alleging their constitutional right to a clean environment. The case was brought on behalf of more than a dozen Montana residents between 2 and 18 years old when it was filed in March 2020. Yes, you read that correctly. Some of the plaintiffs were two years old, suing the State of Montana that they were being denied their constitutional right to a clean environment. The judge ruled this week in favor of the children and stated, “the plaintiffs’ injuries will grow increasingly severe and irreversible.” Putting aside for a moment the whole climate change conversation and the reality that Montana contributes 0.0862% to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, the notion that a group of children including two year olds claiming their constitutional rights to a clean environment were violated is beyond sad. The fact that a Judge actually bought the argument is even more sobering! As our country has been on the slippery slope from a society of responsibility to a society of rights, the feelings of entitlement have caused a corrosive effect in all areas of life. If there is a case of that “weaponization of the year,” this can be a solid candidate! This weeks Parsha is called Shoftim, which is literally translated as judges. The Torah elaborates on what should guide the judicial system. צדק צדק תרדוף (translated literally as justice you shall pursue) is the mandate for judges not to rely on their own conscious or what they might personally think is reasonable but rather to assess whether the claims of the plaintiff or defendant are aligned with Torah law. In the upside-down world of the current judicial system, it might be worthwhile to reread Parshas Shoftim. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, August 11, 2023

Why Can't You Opt Out of Judaism?

A question that has vexed people for centuries is what makes the Jewish People unique. Judaism is unlike other religions because you cannot renounce your Jewish faith. In other major religions, if you declare that you no longer believe in the fundamental principles of the faith, you are no longer a member of the faith. On a certain level, that makes sense. If religion is about a set of beliefs and you do not subscribe to those beliefs, you would no longer be a member of that faith group. Judaism provides no such disengagement and exit clause. A Jew can fervently declare that he no longer believes in God or the validity of the Torah and might even want to cancel his affiliation with Judaism. He has no such option. No matter how disengaged or disconnected an individual is from Judaism; he is permanently a Jew. If Judaism is not a classical religion, it cannot be qualified as a nationality as there are Jews from all over the world. The Jewish people have a homeland, but for thousands of years, we were in exile and carried nationalities from Poland to Uzbekistan, and they were both equally Jewish. Judaism cannot be categorized as a race as people from multiple races are part of the Jewish faith. This brings me back to my original question: if Judaism cannot be a traditional religion, nationality, or race, what is Judaism, and why has it stirred up so much passion and hatred against its people for centuries? The simple answer to a complex and layered question is found in our weekly Parsha. The Torah states בנים אתם לה' אלהיכם. This is translated as “ You are children to Hashem your G-d”. Rabbi Akiva in Pirkei Avos expounds on this verse as this is why we are beloved to G-d because we are His children. Although any individual in the world, whether Jewish or not, can have a relationship with G-d and even a portion in the World to Come, the Jewish are unique as we are considered children of G-d. Rabbi Akiva continues to explain the reason the Jews are children is unlike any other nation. We accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai. Put simply, by committing to upholding all the Mitzvos and obligations articulated in the Torah there is more opportunity for connection with G-d. As Rabbi Akiva taught us based on this Parsha, Judaism is not unique because of any other racial superiority but because we accepted a mission to be ambassadors of Godliness and Holiness. The Torah unlocks the unlimited potential of us to be platforms for G-d and His Holiness in this finite and mundane world. However, it’s important to remember that with this greater potential comes greater responsibility. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, August 4, 2023

Marching Down The Chuppah

This week Henny and I experienced the extraordinary blessing of walking down a child to the Chuppah. There are some experiences in life where an attempt to articulate the experience in words fall short and this falls into that category. There are a few thoughts that are marinating in my head this week that I would like to share. Gratitude: We are so grateful to G-d for bringing us to this milestone. Just about one year ago, my family was involved in a major automobile accident. I recall lying at the side of the road in rural Kentucky, waiting in what seemed forever for an ambulance to arrive. I watched my kids drift in and out of consciousness and wasn’t sure what outcome to anticipate. I recall my daughter Rachelli saying shortly afterward, “This is not our world. This is Hashem’s world, and we have the privilege of living in it.” With much prayer, love, and support, our family came back from the brink. I have emerged from that experience with a new sense of gratitude towards all of life’s miracles, no matter how small they may seem. The Talmud teaches that 40 days prior to the conception of a person, it is already decreed to whom the person will marry. This is known in the vernacular as a bashert. Not everyone is fortunate to marry their bashert. After all, we are endowed with free will and can choose to turn away from meeting our bashert. It is with much prayer and grace that one is blessed to actually marry their bashert. Henny and I had a first-row seat to the great blessing of our daughter Tammy finding her bashert in her now husband, Zevi. We are so grateful to G-d for this special privilege. Another thought that occupied my mind this week was the importance of the process. It seems like another world in 2002 when a little girl was born to Henny and me in Jerusalem. We moved to Jacksonville shortly before her second birthday. Parenting is an endeavor that is uneven and unpredictable. Sometimes as parents, we are forced to eat humble pie. In our case, we made the painful decision to send away our kids at a young age so they could pursue an outstanding Jewish education while we stayed in Jacksonville. (The development of a local amazing High School did not exist at that time). Many tears were spilled in those years by members of our family. There were some agonizing moments during those years when we questioned whether our decisions were correct. Unquestionably, the fact that our kids grew up in the warm Jewish Community of Jacksonville, where they were surrounded by love, contributed to their development. As Henny and I took the first steps of marching Tammy down to the Chuppah, I felt an overwhelming feeling of gratitude to G-d and all the beloved family, friends, and community members for their love, support, and dedication leading up to that moment. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, July 21, 2023

Tisha B'av Reminder in Congress

The United States Congress hosted President Isaac Herzog to deliver a special address to the House of Representatives and the Senate in a joint session. I was honored to be able to attend this historic occasion in person. It was a surreal moment to be in the citadel of American political power and a few feet away from the Vice President and the Speaker of the House. Together with most Members of Congress, there were nearly thirty standing ovations for Mr. Herzog. I got goosebumps as he declared, “Am Yisrael Chai,” the Members of Congress exploded in applause. I thought this was an outstanding speech that made many salient points. I was moved by the traditional approach to how he addressed the time of year on the Jewish calendar. This is an excerpt from his speech: In Jewish weddings, a glass is placed on the ground, intentionally stomped on. This ritual evokes the destruction of our temple in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. Only after the glass is broken, can the celebration truly begin. Amidst the most joyous occasion in the lives of two individuals who have come together to build something whole, we recall what was once broken in our nation. Thus, the bitter blends with the sweet. Today, the Hebrew calendar points to the 1st day of the month of Av. In Jewish tradition this is a somber period in which we mourn the loss of our sovereignty. Jewish communities worldwide lament the beginning of our national exile, where we continuously expressed a spiritual connection to our ancestral Holy Land and a longing to return home and regain our independence throughout two millennia. Mr. Herzog underscored the deep connection that Jews have with Zion and Jerusalem. Our tradition teaches us that from the time of the destruction of the Temple (Beis Hamikdash) in Jerusalem, the era of G-d’s Hidden Face (Hester Panim) has intensified. Over the last two millennia, this phase has unfortunately deepened. The stage of Hester Panim has resulted in much confusion, pain, and unthinkable tragedies. As we prepare once again to observe our National Day of Mourning on Tisha B’av, it is worthwhile reflecting on what we are mourning. On a humid July morning at the historic Joint Session of Congress, we once again received a reminder. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Returning to Yourself

The Shabbos between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is famous for being referred to as Shabbos Shuva. The basic reason for this name is that th...