Friday, November 11, 2022

Thoughts on Shabbos

For thousands of years in several different continents and tumultuous eras, the Jewish people strictly adhered to the Shabbos observance. Shabbos observance is unlike other mitzvahs in its importance and its seriousness to the life of a Jew. An individual that observes the laws of Shabbos is essentially subscribing to a fundamental tenet of Judaism. The basic article of faith is that G-d created this world in six days and rested on the seventh day.  I would like to explore the meaning of G-d “resting” on the seventh day. It cannot mean G-d was tired and fatigued from a challenging week at work in a way that mortal beings get tired at the office. So what does it mean that G-d “rested”? Furthermore, why, just because God rested, should we all rest? There are plenty of things that an infinite, eternal, Al-Mighty G-d can do that mortal beings cannot even begin to dream of accomplishing!! Rashi in his commentary on the creation of the world in Berieshes states that after the six days of creation, the world was deficient of Menucha. At the onset of Shabbos, Menucha arrived as well. Menucha is traditionally understood to be rest, but applying the word rest in this context leaves something lacking in understanding. Our Rabbis have taught a profound interpretation of this passage. After six days, G-d created a perfect physical world and was complete. It contained mountains and valleys, oceans and rivers and lions, tigers and bears! (oh my!) Although the world was complete in the physical realm, it still lacked in one major area. It lacked the spark of G-d’s existence and the intense manifestation of His presence. When Shabbos came, the world experienced an intense spiritual manifestation of His presence like no other time. This idea is expressed in the Kiddush we recite every Friday night in the words of תְּחִלָּה לְמִקְרָאֵי קֹֽדֶשׁ. This is translated as first to the holy gatherings or convocations. That is because this Shabbos experience was like no other in which manifestation of G-d’s presence is present in our lives like no other time. For thousands of years, the Jewish People have been on the brink of survival, and it is not an exaggeration to say that it is in no small part to its commitment to Shabbos that allowed it to survive to this very day.  A few years ago, the Chief Rabbi of South Africa started the Shabbos Project to share the gift of Shabbos with a wider group of our brothers and sisters who are not fortunate to regularly take advantage of this treasure. Over the last few years, the Shabbos Project has exploded in popularity and we are fortunate again to host a program in our community this year. We are delighted to partner with the Kollel in bringing this extraordinary experience to a wider audience of our Jewish brothers and sisters in Greater Jacksonville. There was a ton of effort and energy by many people that were invested in making this Shabbos Project, and on behalf of a grateful community and appreciative Klal Yisroel, I simply nod my head in gratitude. For all those invested in increasing the cause of Godliness and Holiness in this world through the observance of Torah and Mitzvos-- it doesn’t get much better than this!!! Have a peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, November 4, 2022

Response to Anti Semitism

It’s deja vu all over again. So declared the baseball sage Yogi Berra in a different context some time ago. Our national and local Jewish Community is experiencing this sentiment with very public expressions of anti-Semitism by a famous (or infamous) artist and athlete depicted in our local stadium during a prominent football game. A small group of individuals also displayed anti-Semitic banners at overpasses on various major highways in Jacksonville. The sentiment of let’s call the police to remedy any societal injustice clearly faced a limitation and challenge that is rarely acknowledged but it’s essential to be reminded. Vile hate speech is perfectly legal and a protected constitutional right. In multiple conversations with members of our local law enforcement, they articulated that only a call to actual physical violence will cross the line into illegality. If that wasn’t unsettling enough the official report of the JSO of the officers interacting with the individuals who displayed vile Jew-hatred on the interstate should be raising the hair off your back. The JSO officer wrote on his report “thanked the group for their cooperation and apologized for taking up so much time”. This is a local police officer thanking a group of Neo-Nazis for their cooperation and apologizing for taking up so much of their time! The JSO in an official statement confirmed the accuracy of this report! Can anyone imagine if individuals were targeting members of different ethnic groups or minorities that the local police would be so deferential and polite? To suggest this is a shocking disappointment would be a massive understatement. An alternative reaction could have been along the lines of “ we understand that hate speech is not illegal but we don't appreciate you singling out members of the city with hatred and we will watch you very carefully”. I attended a vigil last night that was organized by One Jax to call out anti-Semitism and hate and was heartened to see many non-Jews attending. I still don’t believe that the hateful incident is reflective of our city despite the underwhelming response from JSO. I believe this is a time for some serious reflection. Anti-Semitism has been a plague our people have been confronted with for thousands of years and millions of our brethren have been killed as a result. At this moment, I recall the sagely advice of Rabbi Chaim Volozhin who said “If a Jew doesn’t make kiddush, the non-Jew will make Havdallah”. The message is that if a Jew doesn’t lead a life of holiness and sanctifying G-d the alternative will be for him to try to assimilate into general society by not acting overtly Jewish. The non-Jew will make the Havdala and remind us that we are different and don’t belong. History is filled with too many tragic examples of this Havdala. I believe we need to embrace our identity that we are different and should be filled with pride in our identity and heritage. That can translate differently for different people, but if anything I believe this has been a rude reminder that we can avoid no longer. It’s time for all of us to make kiddush! Have a peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, October 28, 2022

Spiritual Effect on Climate Change

Mathew. Irma. Florence. Michael. Ian. These sound like an innocent group of friends that might have gone into a bar for a drink. Those of us living in Florida recognize these names as menacing deadly storms that have torn through our region causing much loss of life and staggering property damage that has cost several hundred billion dollars in the last few years. I noted before Yom Kippur that Mathew, Florence and Ian unleashed its wrath during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Michael made landfall during this week, the Parsha of Noach in 2018. It is with sad irony that we read about the flood that destroyed the entire civilization as Hurricane Michael was destroying parts of our state. It would be a mistake just to dismiss this as a random coincidence. Obviously, there are factors from the perspective of science about the uptick in these devastating storms. This space is not the area to address that aspect of the conversation. From a spiritual perspective, I would like to share an insight from Maimonides. He writes that when tragic and unnatural events occur that cause misfortune in this world, it should give us pause and encourage us to reflect on the situation. Nothing happens in a vacuum and this should behoove us for some soul-searching.  In this week's Parsha of Noach, G-d communicates that because of the wayward actions of Man, there will be a flood to destroy civilization. Following the flood, G-d made an eternal covenant with Man that He would never destroy the entire world because of Man’s actions. G-d showed Noach a rainbow and made the covenant with him that the world's seasons would not be interrupted. Our Rabbis have pointed out that the covenant does not guarantee that a particular region will not suffer the same fate because of Man’s action. In that sense, I believe what we have been witnessing should cause us to think about what we can do to bring positive change both in our relationship with G-d and with our fellow Man. One of the primary lessons of Noah and the flood is that there is a symbiotic relationship between the actions of Man and the state and existence of this planet. It is not just a question of carbon emissions and warming the planet. That is a conversation for a different forum. (A Rabbi once opined if every member of the planet would not use an automobile or plane one day a week, the planet would have much fewer carbon emissions). Parshas Noach teaches us the real-time effect our moral choices and errors can have on our planet and civilization. The question we should ask ourselves is, what positive actions are we going to engage in that can improve that symbiotic relationship? Have a peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, October 21, 2022

It Never Gets Old

What more can we learn that we have not known already? Who does not know that Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden fruit? Or that Cain and Abel had the first sibling rivalry in history? Or that Noah had to build an ark to protect himself from a catastrophic flood that would destroy civilization? These are fair questions as we once again begin the Torah reading cycle anew with Sefer Bereishis. How many times do we have to hear the same Parsha and pretend not to get bored? At least with the rest of the Torah, there are the various laws and Mitzvahs recorded, which is essential to review. However, Bereishis/ Genesis is devoted primarily to the Jewish People's story and how it came into being with our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. How many times do we have to hear the same stories?  No less a formidable Biblical Commentator than Rashi poses the following question. I would like to paraphrase his answer with a story that occurred in London just over a hundred years ago. Chaim Weizman (who later became the first president of modern Israel) met with Lord Balfour in England and lobbied for the British Government to recognize a Jewish Homeland he was met with much resistance. It is well known that the British attempted to offer Uganda to the Jews as an alternative relocation site. Weizman dismissed this offer and insisted there was no alternative to the Jewish Homeland but Eretz Yisroel. Balfour upbraided Weizmann for rejecting the Uganda offer. Weizmann responded, "Mr. Balfour, suppose I were to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it?" But, Dr. Weizmann, "we already have London," replied the British Lord. "That is true, but we had Jerusalem when London was a marsh," concluded Dr. Weizmann. Balfour was moved to tears and later wrote that the road followed by a great and suffering nation had been illuminated for him".  Rashi writes that it is essential for us to constantly review the Book of Berieshes/Genesis, as the nations of the world will accuse the Jews of improperly occupying the Land. If there is one cause that seems to unite different religions, faiths, and varied political stripes, it is that Israel is a nation of colonialists and occupiers. In the current 76th session of the UN General Assembly (2021-2022), EU member states are likely to vote for one resolution each on the human rights situations in Iran, Syria, North Korea, Myanmar, and Crimea. By contrast, EU states will likely vote in favor of nearly all 14 resolutions singling out Israel. These same EU states have failed to introduce a single UNGA resolution this year on the human rights situation in China, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Turkey, Pakistan, Vietnam, Algeria, and 175 other countries. The ongoing demonization has had a corrosive effect on the Jewish community as there are now multiple progressive Jewish organizations that openly challenge Israel's natural right to its ancient homeland. For this reason, Rashi teaches us we must review the story of our people and our Land on an annual basis. It never gets old. Have a peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

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

Thoughts on Shabbos

For thousands of years in several different continents and tumultuous eras, the Jewish people strictly adhered to the Shabbos observance. S...