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.


Monday, February 10, 2020

A Casual Trip to The Apple Store

A casual trip to the Apple store to purchase a new iPhone or iPad may not be so simple anymore. The unthinkable has occurred, and nobody seems to have an idea about a clear way out of this. The Coronavirus is a new reality, and its ripple effects are being felt near and far. The rapid spread of the virus and the disruption it has caused is the latest test of Apple’s dependence on the world’s most populous nation as a manufacturing base for most of the iPhones, iPads, and Macs sold world-wide. Not only has your favorite Apple product been assembled and manufactured in China, but many of the parts for it are as well. The company has said it will close all of its stores, corporate offices and manufacturing operations in China for the foreseeable future. The company, which employs 10,000 people in China, is also contending with work stoppages by factories that produce components for the products it sells around the world. This is just but a small example of the virus that is wreaking havoc on the global economy. Not to mention the public health crisis in which hundreds of people have succumbed to the disease. Major governments, physicians, and scientists are working around the clock to contain the virus with limited success. The virus appears to have originated in China from a Wuhan seafood market where wild animals, including marmots, birds, rabbits, bats, and snakes, are traded illegally.

I find it uncanny that this is occurring during the weeks that we read the Torah portion of another mighty superpower in Ancient Egypt brought to its knees by the plagues that G-d inflicted upon the population. Then the population refused to recognize the mighty hand of G-d until it was handed a devastating blow. I am not close to being a prophet, but I believe that a mandatory time for reflection is incumbent upon one and all. The rabbis have taught us that we live in a time of Hester Panim or the Hidden Face. That means that we are not afforded the luxury of a prophet like Moses in our lifetime. Anyone professing that they know the reason with certainty as to the reason for these events should be considered suspect. One of the key lessons from the plagues in Egypt was that humanity was reminded that there is an Almighty that created not only this world but also one that manages global affairs. Throughout the millennia, Man has, on occasion, needed to be reminded that we are not in total control, and sometimes that experience is humbling and painful. This seems to be one of these occasions. In these times, all of us need to reflect on this and engage in prayer that the Almighty has compassion on humanity and brings an end to this devastating plague.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Not Your Ordinary Joe

Rav Yosef said, “if not for this day, there would be many Joes in the street.” Talmud Pesachim 68b
This passage was said by one of the prominent Talmudic sages, Rav Yosef, in describing the joy of Shavuos, the anniversary of the transmission of the Torah from
G-d to the Jewish people. He was referring to himself as a changed man for the study of Torah transformed him from an ordinary Joe into a scholar and sage. The study of Torah has a transformative effect on a person as its embedded spirituality penetrates the soul. This can lead a person to inner happiness as the individual becomes connected to their mission in this world. King David writes in Tehillim/Psalms, “the Torah of G-d is complete, and it restores your soul”. The Torah, in essence, is far more than just a section of text to study, it provides us with the means to find meaning and purpose in life in an increasingly confusing world. Reflecting on this can cause a person to realize how fortunate one is to be a student of the Torah.
These were some of the thoughts going through my mind as we proudly marched the new Ackerman Sefer Torah to its new home at our beloved shul. There were a couple of hundred people that accompanied the Torah amidst much song and festivity on a beautiful Sunday morning down San Jose Blvd. Some curious bystanders may have been wondering what exactly people were so happy about. It goes far beyond having a new Torah to read from on Shabbos. It was a celebration of recognizing the Torah as a central part of our lives. There are a few Aha moments in life. I think of those moments that bring us clarity to what direction we should travel in the journey of life. Those moments shed some light on why we sometimes are engaged in so many challenging aspects of our faith. This past Sunday, on a chilly morning in January, there was a proud community that not only marched a Torah into its new home. This was a community that had an important Aha moment.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Choosing To Be Grateful

After experiencing heart palpitations, Irving checks himself in for treatment at a prestigious, state-of-the-art hospital. A few days later, he arranges to be transferred to a dingy little hospital a few blocks away. His friend comes to visit him and asks why he decided to downgrade.
“Did you think that the doctors in the other hospital weren’t competent?”
“The doctors,” Irving replied, “were absolute geniuses, about the doctors I can’t complain!”
“Maybe it was the nurses. You didn’t like their bedside manner?”
“The nurses,” Irving responded, “they were angels in human form! Florence Nightingale’s every one of them! About the nurses, I can’t complain!”
“So I guess it was the food? The food wasn’t good?”
“The food, it was mannah from heaven, absolutely delicious. About the food, I can’t complain!”
“Then Irving, why on earth did you move from there to here?!”
“Because here I can complain!”
As we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, it may be worth a bit of reflection if we have on more than occasion become negative, and if we perhaps can improve our feelings of gratitude. This is easier said than done. There are so many challenges, difficulties, and sometimes pain in our lives. How do we summon the strength to be grateful and positive considering all the mishugas that we sometimes have to deal with?
It’s important to realize that having the right frame of mind in terms of gratitude is a matter of choice. Two people can have an identical experience. One of them will provide feedback about how wonderful the experience was and how grateful he is for the opportunity to take part in it. However, the other individual will be so negative about the experience and won’t stop complaining about it. This Thanksgiving, let us be more cognizant of the blessings bestowed on us by G-d, our family, and our community and let us make the conscious choice to be more grateful as we travel through the journey of life.

Have a Great Shabbos,
Rabbi Yaakov Fisch 

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Strengthening Your Marriage

This week’s Parsha gives us a front-row seat to an institution that is extraordinarily complex. It can range anywhere from incredibly joyous to unpleasant and painful. I am referring, of course, to the institution of marriage. It can be said that as a society, this institution is increasingly beleaguered. With divorce rates rising and hovering at around 50% in America, the failure rates of marriage within our Jewish Community on the national level continue to climb. Almost as disturbing are couples that, although married, merely coexist with one another. Many times, the necessary foundational blocks that are necessary for a couple to have a successful and thriving marriage are absent. The couple may continue to go through the various phases of life, merely sharing a home but not much else. As we reflect on this ever-important issue and as we read about the matrimony of our ancestors in this week’s Parsha, I will take the liberty sharing some timeless wisdom from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin on this topic. 

1. Keep your mind on your primary goal, which is to have a happy marriage. Say and do what will enable you and your spouse to have a happy marriage. Avoid the opposite. Everything else is commentary.
2. Keep asking yourselves, “What can we do to have a happy, loving atmosphere in our home?”
3. Focus on giving rather than taking. Say and do as many things as possible to meet your spouse’s needs.
4. Keep doing and saying things that will give your spouse a sense of importance.
5. Frequently ask yourself, “What positive things can I say and do to put my (husband or wife) in a positive emotional state?”
6. Before speaking, clarify the outcome you want. The meaning of your communication is the response you actually get. If the first thing you say is not achieving your goal, change your approach. Remember that mutual respect and happiness is your real goal.
7. Show appreciation and gratitude in as many ways as possible. Say something appreciative a few times a day
8. Be a good listener. Understand your spouse from his or her point of view.
9. Be considerate of the feelings and needs of your spouse. Think of ways that you have lacked consideration and be resolved to increase your level of consideration.
10. Instead of blaming and complaining, think of positive ways to motivate your spouse. If your first strategies aren’t effective, think of creative ways.
11. Give up unrealistic expectations. Don’t expect your spouse to be perfect and don’t make comparisons.
12. Don’t cause pain with words. If your spouse speaks to you in ways that cause you pain, choose outcome wording, “Let’s speak to each other in ways that are mutually respectful.”
13. Be willing to compromise. Be willing to do something you would rather not do in return for similar behavior from your spouse.
14. Write a list of ways that you have benefited from being married to your spouse. Keep adding to the list and reread it frequently.
15. Write a list of your spouse’s positive patterns and qualities. Keep adding to the list and read it frequently.
16. Keep thinking about what you can do to bring out the best qualities of your spouse. Reinforce those qualities with words and actions.
17. Focus on finding solutions to any problems that arise. Be solution-oriented. Don’t just blame and complain. Don’t focus on who is more wrong. For a happy marriage, work together to find mutually acceptable solutions.
18. Remember your finest moments. What did you say and do when you felt best about each other? Increase them.
19. Look for positive activities you can do together.
20. Live in the present. What went wrong in the past is the past. You create the present and future with your thoughts, words, and actions right now. Choose them wisely.

Have a Great Shabbos,
Rabbi Yaakov Fisch 

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 

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 Ra...