Friday, June 19, 2020

Life is Complicated

In an increasingly polarized world, there is an expectation in many forums and discussions to respond to complex and nuanced issues in a binary manner. Where in the past one could communicate a measured and nuanced response that seems like the distant past. A simple Yes or No is demanded to thorny issues like systemic racism, police reform, and many other controversial topics. In the Jewish World as well there is an expectation to embrace an attitude on which camp you must subscribe to.

The narrative of this weeks parsha reflects the fallacy of such a mindset. The spies that were sent by Moshe to scout out the Land of Israel returned with an incredibly negative report. They reported that the natives were exceptionally strong and the Jews would face a humiliating defeat. The spies not only soured on the land but were especially demoralizing as well. The masses were crushed and were ready to declare mutiny against the leadership of Moshe. Upon careful analysis, the spies did not technically lie but were nonetheless responsible and bore the devastating consequences. There has been much commentary about the actual sin of the spies. I believe it was their inability to view the shortcomings of the Land of Israel in the context of the entire picture. Sure, the Land was not perfect and had (and has) its share of challenges. However, they neglected to see the larger picture and that G-d was giving them a slice of land on this earth to be a platform for G-dliness. The people got stuck in the weeds and couldn’t see past the negative report.

The end of the Parsha teaches us precisely the opposite message. In the mitzvah to wear Tzitzis, it is mentioned that it must contain a thread of Techeilis or blue wool. The Talmud expounds on this that looking at techeilis should remind of us of the blue sea which should in turn trigger thoughts of the blue sky and eventually the Creator of the world. Initially, one is looking at a thread and one continues to expand his horizon and eventually sees G-d in the picture. If only the spies had this perspective, much pain and tragedy could have been avoided.

We live in complex times and a complex world. Things cannot be always viewed in absolute terms. It would be worth reflecting on the bookends of this weeks Parsha as a poignant reminder.




Friday, June 12, 2020

Connection or Restriction?

As we are still sorting out the many different realities of the COVID-19 era, there was a welcome bright spot amidst the chaos. The IRS is not usually an organization that is associated with delivering positive news. In the upside-down world of 2020, not only did the IRS delay the tax deadline by three months, but they also deposited money in the accounts of U.S. taxpayers with the stimulus funds. I began to think that hypothetically speaking, were we to find out that we are exempt from observing a mitzvah what kind of reaction would that elicit. Would we be disappointed that we have been deprived of fulfilling a mitzvah, or would we breathe a sigh of relief?

I would tend to think that this is a philosophical question as to how we view the Mitzvos in the Torah. One way is to view the mitzvos as a means of connection to an Al-Mighty G-d. The Torah gives a plan of how to transform a finite and temporary world into a place of relationship with an eternal G-d that wants an eternal connection with us. This approach would translate into a great disappointment for a person that cannot fulfill a mitzvah. Another way of looking at the mitzvos is that they are a bunch of restrictions. Thus, the Torah is filled with a restrictive lifestyle. If one ever were exempted from keeping a mitzvah, he would be relieved from his perceived burden.

There is a compelling narrative in this weeks parsha. There was a group of Jews that could not observe the Pesach sacrifice due to their status of ritual impurity. Yet, they approached Moshe and demanded that he somehow find a way for them to fulfill the mitzvah. They could have had a different approach. They could have reacted with relief for their Pesach exemption that year. They reacted with disappointment because they viewed the Mitzvo's opportunities of connection and couldn’t find peace with the notion with the exemption for Pesach that year. If we were ever unexpectedly expected from a mitzvah, would we react with disappointment or delight?




Tuesday, June 9, 2020

A Time to Listen

The searing images of America burning will be ingrained into the heart and souls of Americans for a long time. Pain and anger were seen and felt in many corners of the country after the tragic death of George Floyd. We need to send our deepest condolences and empathy to the African American Community. (I think this is obvious, but this does not in any way condone violence or looting as a reaction) One of the fundamental values in Judaism is that all people are created in the image of G-d. This value is the bedrock of the Torah as our Sages have taught us. Unfortunately, we have seen an increasingly polarized society that is increasingly fractured on many different levels. The divisiveness that is so raw is not limited to the events of this past week. Recently, there has been great discord on the appropriate response to the coronavirus on both the macro and micro levels in society. There are so many disagreements about how and when to reopen organizations that various governments, cultures, and communities have become fractured in this process. Not to mention the political divide in which people that support different candidates or political parties frequently view people of opposing views with disdain.

The first step towards reconciliation or unity is to listen to one another. If we can’t listen to each other, then we become further alienated from one another. The Vilna Gaon teaches that there are three levels of listening. The most basic level is simply to listen to what the other person is saying without interrupting. Not thinking of what your potential response is going to be, but rather listening intently to the individual speaking. The next level is understanding. This includes any follow-up questions that would enhance an understanding of the different viewpoints. Finally, it is important to accept what the person is saying. Acceptance does not mean to agree with the person, but instead, accepting the opinion that he is communicating is his reality. It would be most helpful to internalize the wisdom of the Vilna Gaon whenever having a conversation with a person that you disagree with on a controversial issue.

Arguably, the most important declaration of faith in Judaism is the Shema. The definition of Shema is to hear. It is translated is Hear O’ Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One. The underlying understanding is that Israel as a nation should hear this theology. There is another idea that before accepting G-d as the Almighty, we must listen to each other and come together. It is quite compelling to note that before declaring that G-d is One, we are called upon to listen and hear each other. In a world that is rocked by mistrust and division, the first step to reconciliation and healing is learning how to listen.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

A Sacred Time

With the ongoing effect that the virus has on all of us collectively, it has been a humbling experience for every sector across society. One of the primary lessons we have learned has been to appreciate the time in our lives. Indeed, our time is finite, and we as people are finite beings. In the past, we may have been so caught up in the daily grind and may have not utilized our time most productively. I believe as we reassess the most fundamental aspect of our lives, it is essential to ask ourselves, is our time in this world infused with goodness and Godliness?

There is a lengthy section in this week’s Parsha about the gift that we received to infuse our time in this manner. The Parsha teaches us about the various sacred times in Jewish life and begins with the Shabbos. It is folly to believe that the purpose of Shabbos is simply to rest because G-d rested. After all, G-d doesn’t need to rest since He is an infinite being! Rather, the Rabbis have taught us that the Rest that is related to G-d is a far different concept. It means that after six days of creation, the world was complete in a materialistic way. There were mountains and valleys, oceans and rivers and even lions, tigers and bears (oh my!). There was also the creation of Adam and Eve. Yet, the world was an empty shell as there was a limited manifestation of G-d’s presence. With the arrival of Shabbos, there was a manifestation of G-d’s presence in the world. This manifestation of Godliness was not limited to the first Shabbos in history. Rather, every single Shabbos, there is another opportunity to tap into this sacred space in time. One cannot overstate the incredible gift of Shabbos as we have the chance every week to elevate and infuse the precious time in our lives with meaning and purpose. Let us pay attention to this gift and realize how fortunate we are to have the Shabbos in our lives.


Thursday, April 30, 2020

Preserving the Sacred Space

As society is itching to return to a normal life, it is worth asking what, if any, lessons we have learned from the pandemic. Everybody will draw their conclusions and expect the fingerpointing in the political arena to descend to a new low. From a spiritual perspective, it behooves us to ask ourselves what we have learned from this most unusual period. Indeed, there is no one correct answer to this, but I would like to share one angle in light of a startling passage in this weeks Parsha.

The Parsha begins by G-d instructing Moshe that one may not come to the holiest area of the Temple at any time. In fact, not only would the entrance to the Holy of Holies be permitted once a year, it was only sanctioned for the Kohein Gadol (High Priest) to enter this sacred space. For everyone else, it was forever off-limits. The notion of the holiest area in Judaism being off-limits to everyone besides the Kohein Gadol on one day a year sounds counter-intuitive. One would like to think, the more sacred the location, the more times we should frequent the area. In contemporary times, I like to think of the Kotel and how we are encouraged to visit as frequently as possible and yet in ancient times in the era of the Beis Hamikdash (Temple), the entrance tot he holiest area was prohibited!

The Rabbis teach us a compelling lesson, and that is the danger of losing one’s sensitivity to the sacredness of the area that may occur with one feeling too comfortable by frequenting the sanctuary. That is why the holiest place in Judaism was off-limits to everyone but the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). This lesson is something that has been gnawing at me since we were compelled to shut the doors of our shul in the face of COVID-19. The gift of individuals coming together to connect as a community in prayer has been temporarily removed from us. G-d willing, we will be able to resume our prayers in shul in the not too distant future. At that point, will we have internalized the preciousness of the Beis Haknesses/Sanctuary? Will our attitude be one of seriousness, or will a nonchalant, casual attitude reappear? If there is one thing that this uncertain period has taught us, it is to take nothing for granted. Let us remember the unique gift of praying in shul, and let is never treat it with anything than the highest respect it deserves.


Friday, April 24, 2020

Utilizing a Period of Reflection



The narrative of an individual that is diagnosed and sent into quarantine to engage in a period of healing before he can reenter society is the message of this week's Parsha. The person was diagnosed with Tzaaras, an affliction of the skin. The Torah teaches us that there are spiritual underpinnings for this physical condition. As part of the healing process, he must engage in solitude confinement. The purpose of this is not for the isolation to be punitive but rather for it to be an opportunity for reflection. The mandatory confinement for a period of reflection is an opportunity for growth as it allows a person to rethink their priorities in life and examine the choices that he regularly makes.

The current period has an uncanny resemblance to this Biblical message. In the year 2020, there are billions of people around the world who are in mandatory confinement and this is proven to be quite a challenge. However, as in our weekly Parsha, there is an excellent opportunity for growth as well. Like it or not, we have been thrown off-kilter and allows us to reflect. Such thoughts can include some uncomfortable internal questions about the things that matter the most to us. That should not be a deterrent to this self-scrutiny. Let us hope and pray that after this period of mandatory isolation, we rejoin society having utilized this period of reflection.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

I had been hoping to write my message this week on some reflections of a Purim holiday that was joyous in many different ways. This week is somewhat surreal as significant changes were occurring on an almost hourly basis due to the Coronavirus that is wreaking havoc on every corner in the world. Its impact is being felt on every aspect of society from the financial markets to the airline industry and much in between. This is a time that years from now, history will mark as remarkable as a global event. There are many different angles and perspectives on this virus, and I would like to share one here.
This crisis is upending many underlying assumptions that we have as a society. One of them is how much control we have in life. One of the sober realities that we are being confronted with is how vulnerable we are. The myth of Man in the twenty-first century who is all-powerful and has built up a robust economy, unparalleled technological advances with cutting edge in modern medicine have all come been seriously questioned. It just took a few microscopic pathogens to turn this world upside down. The truth is, although we may be shocked by the unraveling norms that we have come to expect as a society, this is not the first time this has occurred. Although it’s not a perfect analogy, the plagues that ancient Egypt suffered that are described in the Torah offer a compelling lesson. It tells us of a society that was a superpower of its time that went unchallenged by all and refused to recognize the hand of G-d in life. Indeed, G-d told Moses that the primary purpose of the plagues was not only to reinforce that there is a G-d who is a Creator but a G-d who manages daily affairs in the global arena as well. The Egyptians refused to believe how vulnerable they were until it was too late for them. The days ahead will be undoubtedly challenging and difficult. Instead of obsessively checking the news every few minutes, it may be worthwhile to spend a few extra moments on reflection and prayer. This hard reality about our vulnerabilities being exposed should hopefully cause us to turn to G-d in these difficult times.

Friday, February 28, 2020

The first Jewish fundraising campaign is found in this week's Parsha. The Israelites are told to bring forward raw materials for the construction of the Mishkan/Tabernacle. With the conveniences of a Super Walmart or Home Depot not available where did they procure all the materials for the building of the Mishkan? The precious metals such as gold, silver, and copper were part of the spoils that came from their time in Egypt. They were quite resourceful in securing all the rest of the materials that included the fine fabrics. There was one notable exception to this. The Atzei Shittim/Acacia Wood came from Israel. Rashi elaborates with the details. A couple of centuries prior to this event, when Yaakov was relocating to Egypt from Israel, he made it his business for this wood to be transported to Egypt for the eventual construction of the Mishkan. It seems to be quite a lesson in advance planning. Why was it necessary for Yaakov to shlep all this wood down to Egypt for an event two hundred years into the future? Were there other materials that were perhaps also worthy of such attention? 



The Atzei Shittim/Acacia wood was primarily used for the construction of the beams. This functioned quite literally as the foundation of the Mishkan/Tabernacle. Yaakov was teaching us a profound lesson. In regards to most things, one can be creative and under the appropriate circumstances, even compromise on certain things. However, in regards to the foundation, it must always emanate from a pure source, and one cannot compromise on a foundational issue. The Mishkan was the structure in which the Israelites come to connect as people to connect with G-d, and that is why our ancestors took great pains to bring the wood for this purpose. Our rabbis have taught that each individual is a Mishkan in the sense that there is a divine spark within everyone. That is our foundation of who are as people. Let us treat it with the honor and respect a holy foundation deserves. 



Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

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.

Life is Complicated

In an increasingly polarized world, there is an expectation in many forums and discussions to respond to complex and nuanced issues in a bin...