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.

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 ...