Friday, September 23, 2022

Pro Choice in Judaism

One of the basic tenets of Judaism is the concept of free will. This fundamental belief states that no one is preordained for greatness or failure. Instead, it is the individual ability to choose that will determine the consequences that will occur. If a person makes the correct choices, then a certain positive outcome will occur, and similarly, if someone makes destructive choices in life, he bears the consequences of the negative result. This lesson is taught to us in this week's Parsha of Nitzavim. As the Torah states: ראה נתתי לפניך היום את החיים ואת הטוב ואת המות ואת הרע. ובחרת בחיים למען תחיה אתה וזרעך. "See- I have placed the life and the good before you today, and the death/ evil. And you shall choose life to live you and your offspring." Free will does not mean we can choose to do whatever we desire; rather it means we have the power to choose and are responsible for the choices. I think this message is relevant throughout the year but perhaps most compelling before Rosh Hashanah. As our tradition teaches, this is a time when we are judged before G-d and be held accountable for our actions. It may be therefore refreshing for one to know that despite anything that occurred in the past, you are free to choose a new path moving forward. Furthermore, it is quite liberating to know that we get to choose that path and not be resigned to preconceived notions about what you or your life should look like. I fondly recall one of our members who, at the age of 80, decided that he was going to start studying the Talmud despite never having studied it in his life before. He joined our Daf Yomi group and came every morning to study, and never missed a day. By the time he passed away at 84, he had managed to study most of the Talmud. That's because he said the past is gone, but I will choose to enrich my life moving forward with a daily dose of Torah Study. So as we enter a new year, remember it is time to consider your aspirations and goals. It will only be acheived if you choose to pursue it. Otherwise, it will remain in the dustbin of wasted dreams. So perhaps the most important question you might ask yourself on Rosh Hashanah is, am I going to choose to pursue my goals this year?". To paraphrase the sage Hillel, if you won't do it, no one will. And if not now, when?" Have a Great Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, September 9, 2022

Resetting your Perspective

The month of Elul is upon us. This is the final month of the Jewish year. We wind down the year 5782 and look forward to a new year of 5783. Traditionally, in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah, the shofar is blown at the conclusion of the daily morning minyan. Many times this season triggers reactions that are not necessarily positive. From the attitude here, we go again from unusually long services to just not “feeling it,” Elul is frequently greeted with a yawn. So what would be an appropriate perspective to internalize as Elul is here and we are on the cusp of yet another New Year?  Our Rabbis have taught that the acronym of Elul is short for “Ani L’Dodi V’dodi Li,” translated as “I am for my Beloved, and my Beloved is for me”. The source for this is a passage from Song of Songs written by the wise King Solomon. He describes the passionate relationship between a man and woman in love and their intense feelings for one another. The traditional interpretation of this text refers metaphorically to the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people. This is foundational in our understanding of our relationship with G-d and our commitment to Torah, Mitzvahs, and Tradition. After all, why should any reasonable individual, especially one with Western sensitivities, restrict oneself to what they can eat, when they can drive, and who they can marry? Our generation has embraced the mantra of Pro-Choice in every area of life. Shouldn’t personal autonomy be more significant? Why should I base my life upon a document written by some G-d that feels very remote and disconnected from me? King Solomon addresses this by saying, “ I am for my Beloved, and my Beloved is for me.” G-d created us and gave us a special mission in life because He cares and loves for us. The commandments in the Torah are just details when we internalize this notion that we are deeply connected to a loving G-d who wants a relationship with us. The wise person understands that the mitzvos in the Torah are a mitzvos are an opportunity for connection and not just mere restrictions. Throughout the year, we might not have felt incredibly inspired to be as observant as we could or, in general, feel that closeness to the Almighty. Elul is an opportunity to pause and reflect on this fundamental Jewish idea that we have a loving G-d that wants a meaningful relationship. Throughout Elul, when we hear the sound of the shofar, it is a reminder to reassess where we are moving towards self-improvement.  Life is full of opportunities that are often squandered because we lack appreciation for the moment. Elul is a precious gift that should be utilized before it slips away. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, September 2, 2022

Rethinking the Paradigm of Tzedaka

As we approach the High Holidays and once again are in a time of introspection, I believe it is time for reflection on an essential part of Jewish communal life: Tzedaka. Many of us are afflicted with donor fatigue as there seem to be never-ending campaigns soliciting us for our hard-earned dollars. Sometimes we feel the organizations or people asking us for Tzedaka are imperfect and thus not worthy of being recipients of our charitable giving. The times we live in are also unsettling as inflation has risen to record highs not seen in decades. The economy has entered the shaky ground, with Federal Reserve recently ruling out a pause to hikes in interest rates. It would make sense for all the above reasons for someone to be more conservative in their charitable giving this season. From a spiritual perspective, we must remember that if this mitzvah were super easy for everyone to fulfill, there would be minimal reward attached to the endeavor. The larger point is communicated in last week's Parsha with the Mitzvah of Tzedaka. The Torah states,נתון תתן לו ולא ירע לבבך בתתך לו כי בגלל הדבר הזה יברכך ה' אלקיך בכל מעשיך  This is translated as "You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; for because of this thing, the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your work and in all your endeavors." The Talmud interprets it succinctly with the response of Rabbi Akiva to the challenge of why didn't God provide for the needy directly if He loves them! Rabbi Akiva responded that it was to give the donor the privilege of the Mitzvah of Tzedakah!  The insight here is nothing short of stunning! Of course, G-d can provide for all the financial needs of the shuls, day schools, yeshivas, kollelim, etc. But, G-d created this paradigm where organizations and individuals representing them must go to great lengths to solicit funds to give the donor the privilege to contribute. I had this experience this week in which I solicited an individual for Tzedaka, and he responded with a commitment of thousands of dollars. I followed up my meeting with an email thanking him for his generous gift. His response was short, concise, and totally classy. He wrote. "Thank you for the opportunity."   The great lesson here is that we are all but stewards of our financial resources. If we have the opportunity to give some Tzedaka, we should seize the moment and go out of our comfort zone. In a few short weeks, we will stand on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and once again plead with the Almighty for the privilege to merit life. Nothing is guaranteed, and we can't assume we are entitled to anything. We stand before the Al-Mighty and plead for nothing less than the privilege to live another year. Our tradition also teaches us as we declare in the liturgy, ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזירה. This is translated as "Repentance, Prayer, and Charity can overturn an unfavorable decree." We will be given ample opportunities to be charitable in the coming days. Let's remember not to squander the moment.  Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, August 26, 2022

The Essence 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 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 and Good Rosh Chodesh, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, August 19, 2022

There’s No Place Like Home

The Israeli Ministry of Tourism recently unleashed an aggressive marketing campaign to court tourists back to the Holy Land in the post COVID era. The campaign is touting the sun, sea, and sightseeing of Israel. It doesn't fail to highlight the Mediterranean beaches and the authentic Israeli cuisine to capture the hearts and minds of travelers this summer. It appears to be effective, as the number of tourists rival pre pandemic records. Interestingly enough, our Parsha this week also touts the Land of Israel as a preferred place not only to visit and live but as our place of destiny. It contrasts the qualities of the Land of Israel with the only other country the Jews were familiar with at the time-- Egypt. How Israel and Egypt are compared are contrasted is somewhat peculiar. The Torah states, "For the land, which you will possess it, is not as the land of Egypt, from which you came out, where thou did sow the seed and did water it with thy foot, as a garden of herbs; but the land, whither ye go over to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and drink water as the rain of heaven come down." It's noteworthy the Torah doesn't say that falafel, shawarma, or hotel breakfasts is better in Israel. Out of all the factors to highlight the superiority of Israel, it appears to choose a poor example. Regarding irrigation vs. rainfall, Egypt seems to have a clear advantage over Israel. The Nile was a blessing to the Egyptian economy and agricultural society, as the people constructed canals and irrigation ditches to harness the Nile river's yearly flood and bring water to distant fields. The Nile was constant, and the people did not have to worry about a drought a shortage of crops due to a lack of rain. The people of Israel were not so fortunate as they depended on rainfall. There were years when rain was plentiful, and there were times when rain was scarce. Indeed, a tractate in the Talmud entitled Taanis articulates a series of fasting and prayers in the event of a drought. The farmers in Israel every autumn were racked with anxiety about the pending rainfall and could only fantasize about an irrigation system that was sourced from the Nile. Why does the Torah specifically choose to identify this particular example to highlight the superiority when it appears that Egypt has a clear advantage? The Torah is teaching us a profound lesson about why the Land of Israel is the most conducive place to have a relationship with the Al-Mighty. There are other places where it might be more convenient to live, or there may be more amenities available. However, the most conveniences or amenities (as in the irrigation system in Egypt) does not translate into the most meaningful life. As there are times of drought in Israel, that also results in increased prayer and awareness of G-d. The Land of Israel is the most conducive place to have a relationship with G-d because one is more aware of G-d than any other location. For this reason, the Torah contrasts Israel with the conveniences of another country. It may not have the most amenities. In matters of what counts most-- a place to commune with G-d- there is no place like home. Have a peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, June 17, 2022

Not a Zero Sum Game

“Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.” These words are attributed to George Bernard Shaw. Still, as I reflect on a significant milestone our community achieved this week with the Kollel record-breaking fundraiser, I cannot help but feel immense pride and gratitude. About six years ago, I initiated a serious conversation with the community members about bringing a Kollel to Jacksonville. There was understandably a healthy skepticism among many individuals. The two main concerns communicated to me were, is it really necessary to have a Kollel in Jacksonville? There was also a concern if our community could financially support a new institution considering the scarce financial resources available. Would this not jeopardize the economic future of our local shul and school? I articulated the mission of the Kollel from the outset would be twofold. First, it would be to establish a Makom Torah in our town. Any established city needs to have a buzzing beehive of a Beit Midrash. This platform is fueled by the Kollel Rabbis and scholars who study in the Beit Midrash during the day and night but is open to anyone in the community to drop in with or without a study partner and sink their teeth into the sweet study of Torah. The second element of the Kollel is for it to be a vehicle of outreach to the Greater Jewish Jacksonville Community through the medium of Torah Education. The amazing and professional Kollel staff have achieved this through offering Shabbat Experiences, Women’s Programming, CLE Classes, and much more. Unlike a shul or school with membership or tuition as revenue to depend on, the Kollel exclusively relies on the generosity of donors to sustain its operations. The Jacksonville Kollel has been extremely fortunate to have a dedicated group of partners who have stepped up to support it financially and morally. While the Kollel is grateful to have some out-of-town support, most of the funding comes from local sources. In 2021, the Kollel conducted its first-ever matching fundraiser campaign and raised $72,000. This year, they raised the bar, exceeded the goal of $100,000, and brought in over $108,000 in just over 36 hours. Perhaps even more remarkable is that 362 donors participated in the campaign over 36 hours! The success of this campaign bodes well not only for the Kollel but also for Etz Chaim Synagogue, Torah Academy, and the rest of the Jewish Community. It is a mistake to think of community building as a zero-sum game. A more apt description regarding community building we need to continue to internalize is -- The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, June 10, 2022

My commencement address to Graduates

It is an exciting time of year as the Class of 2022 dons their caps and gowns, graduates from this stage in life, and prepares for the next stage. Students who worked hard and invested so much into reaching this stage have much to be proud of all their efforts. Let's not forget the parents who invested much of their blood, sweat, and tuition dollars so that their children can reach this milestone. It has become a tradition for a notable figure to deliver the commencement as politicians, athletes, and celebrities flock to universities to dispense some with some of their wisdom. I have mused to myself if I had been invited to deliver a commencement address, would I have anything meaningful to share with a group of students ready to transition to the next step in their journey? Here are some of my thoughts: Life of Gratitude: This approach to life cannot be overstated, especially in the post-Covid era. Our society is wholly enmeshed in the throes of entitlement, and unfortunately, Observant Jews are not immune from this malady. From a young age, we are fed a concoction of rights that feed this perception among ourselves that we are entitled to whatever, however, whenever we desire something. If this outcome is not met to its specification, one is usually disappointed and sad. The opposite approach is to live a life of appreciation and gratitude. The latter individual expects nothing and appreciates everything. Judaism teaches us that the first prayer to recite daily is the Modeh Ani. This is a declaration of gratitude that we have been afforded another day in this world to make a difference in the world. The more we express our gratitude to G-d and others, the more we appreciate every day for what it offers, no matter the challenges it brings. Live with Holiness: As one advances with a career, life can quickly turn meaningless by one jumping from earning a paycheck to paying the bills to work to make a paycheck to earn, etc. The weeks at work turn into months, then years, and then one wonders where all the time went. Therefore, making every day count is important by infusing some G-dliness in the day. For example, one can study Torah for a few minutes, pray fervently or commit to engaging in chesed. All these have the marking of inculcating holiness into your day. So my dear graduates, as the saying goes, you only live once! So make the most of each day, and the entire world will benefit from that single choice. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Pro Choice in Judaism

One of the basic tenets of Judaism is the concept of free will. This fundamental belief states that no one is preordained for greatness or ...