Friday, December 17, 2021

Just do good

In a somewhat bizarre incident, Yosef brings his two sons Menashe and Ephraim to his ailing father’s bedside for a final parting and for the two young grandchildren to get a blessing from their sage grandfather. Yaakov stuns Yosef when he places his right hand on the second brother Ephraim and his left hand on the firstborn son Menashe. This is met with resistance from Yosef, who not so gently reminds his elderly father that Menashe is the firstborn and thus deserving to have the right hand placed on him. (This is somewhat ironic considering that Yosef who was not the firstborn was considered the preferred son and now he is taking offense that his firstborn son was not receiving his due honor). What was it about Yaakov’s insistence that Ephraim is the recipient of the preferred bracha? Not only that, but Yaakov designated the gold standard of blessings should be “ May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe” -- why was it so important that Ephraim precedes Menashe ? The Nesivos Shalom writes based on a famous verse in Tehillim/Psalms: סור מרע ועשה טוב /Desist from Evil and Perform Good. This is the formula that King David taught us toward the path of character development and improvement. First and foremost, it is important to desist from wrongdoing and only then to engage in mitzvah or good deeds. The only problem with that approach is that a person can always be busy with desisting wrongdoing and never get to perform one mitzvah or good deed -- for who can actually say that I have no baggage left in the closet and now I am free to pursue mitzvahs and good deeds? One of the best ways to desist from wrongdoing is to just do a mitzvah or good deed. This is illustrated with the story of Menashe and Ephraim. In Parshas Mikeitz, it states the reason why Yosef named his two sons Menashe and Ephraim. His first son was named Menashe for as he put it “God has made me forget the toil”, in essence that is the value of desist from wrongdoing. His second son was named Ephraim for as he put it “G-d made me fruitful in the land of my affliction”. In essence, this is the value of Asei Tov/Doing a Mitzvah or good deed. That was the deeper message of Yaakov in his designation of his two grandsons. Although in an ideal world, it is important to first get away from wrongdoing it is imperative that one just perform a mitzvah or a good deed as activation energy. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, December 10, 2021

Seek to understand then be understood

“If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This is one of the fundamental teachings of Stephen Covey. It is also the fifth habit in his famous book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. If you’re like most people, you probably seek first to be understood; you want to get your point across. And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you’re listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely. So why does this happen? Because most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. You listen to yourself as you prepare in your mind what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask, etc. You filter everything you hear through your life experiences, your frame of reference. You check what you hear against your autobiography and see how it measures up. And consequently, you decide prematurely what the other person means before he/she finishes communicating. Covey teaches us the supremely important value of truly trying to understand an opposing person’s position before attempting to convince someone else of your own opinion. I have long believed the Seven Habits of Covey are aligned with the wisdom found in the Torah. For example, in the Megilas Esther, when Esther sees Mordechai dressed in sackcloth, it was shocking and painful to view a loved one in such a compromising way. The message Esther sent to Mordechai was לָדַעַת מַה־זֶּה וְעַל־מַה־זֶּה This is translated as to know what this was and this was. I have wondered why the repetitive expression was necessary for Esther to get her point across! I believe she was applying the concept of seeking to understand before being understood. When you see something unusual and bizarre before rushing to judgment, it may be worthwhile to legitimately explore the reason for this viewpoint or practice. Unfortunately, when this does not occur, the consequences can be nothing short of catastrophic. We don't have to go further than this week's Parsha to witness the relationship of Yosef and his brothers and the cost of not seeking to understand the others first. Indeed, so many people are estranged from parents, spouses, siblings, and other family members. It doesn’t have to be this way. It might be worth it to seek to understand before being understood. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, November 12, 2021

Rising Inflation

People having frayed nerves about the economy is not a new thing. Government officials attempting to bring solutions forward is also an ancient practice. "A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage", declared a presidential hopeful about a century ago. The declaration did not calm the masses, and the person was derided for the comment. Alas, with the economic advancement in the modern age, people have real concerns again about the economy, with record inflation being felt in all sectors of the economy. Reaching into your pocket and feeling some cash in your pocket doesn't elicit the same feeling of security as the dollars don't translate into the same buying power of a short time ago. Social Security beneficiaries will receive a 5.9% increase as the cost of living adjustment to keep up with the rising cost of living in America today. While I am not an economist as there are various factors for the worrisome trend in the economy, it is a worthy time to reflect on the importance of materialism in our lives. In this week's Parsha, Yaakov makes a heartfelt prayer to G-d as he is about to embark on a journey fraught with danger. Yaakov explicitly asks that he be granted the privilege of having "bread to eat and clothes to wear." It's important to note the simplicity associated with the request. There were no extravagant or grandiose expectations. In times of plenty, one doesn't think twice about clicking and ordering the latest " must-have" on Black Friday or Cyber Monday. The times that we find ourselves in should give us pause to reflect about the role of materialism in our lives. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, October 22, 2021

The Gift of Shabbos

Throughout 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. Obviously, it cannot mean G-d was tired and fatigued from a challenging week at work in a way that us 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 into this passage. At the conclusion of the 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 the manifestation of G-d presence is present in our lives like no other time. For thousands of years, the Jewish People have been at 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 regularly this treasure. Over the last few years, the Shabbos Project has exploded in popularity and we are fortunate to host a program in our community this year. The Jacksonville Kollel is hosting a phenomenal program tonight for the community and partnering with our shul tomorrow to bring this three thousand year plus gift 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 was 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 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, October 8, 2021

Oasis in the Storm

As we begin a new cycle of the weekly Torah reading, we are challenged to find any meaning and insights into narratives and stories that we have heard about for years and decades. This week’s Parsha of Noach is an excellent example of that. Any attendee of Hebrew school knows that Noach built an ark to save him, his family, and many animals from the destruction of the flood that G-d had unleashed into the world. Even Hollywood caught on a few years ago, releasing a blockbuster movie, Noah. Despite the rave reviews, it seems that consensus, as with most things the book is better than the movie! What then can we practically glean from the story of Noach building an ark to escape the flood? The Nesivos Shalom offers a fascinating insight into the eternal lesson of building an ark to find an escape from a flood. Figuratively speaking, our generation needs to find a respite from the ongoing bombardment of distractions that keep invading our space at every waking moment of the day. The stress that the season of COVID has added to our daily arena has only exacerbated an already tense reality. That is where I have come to appreciate Shabbos so much even more. Shabbos has been a day of rest for all of time, but arguably, our generation needs the rest of the holy Shabbos in more ways than ever before. Shabbos is a time not just for extra naps and rest but rather a time to be more connected to G-d and our families. It is also a special opportunity to become more in touch with ourselves as we go 25 hours with tweets, updates, and the latest breaking updates. Essentially, the gift of Shabbos is akin to leaving the stormy and treacherous waters that we are confronted with all week and enter an area of respite and reprieve. As we once again review the Parsha and learn about the ancient ark, let us be forever grateful for the eternal ark that we enter Friday evening at sundown. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, October 1, 2021

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 Weizmann (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. Weizmann 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. The United Nations General Assembly in 2020 had a total of 17 resolutions against the Jewish state versus six resolutions singling out any other country. 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 3, 2021

Responsible for Each Other

The final Shabbos of the Jewish Calendar boasts one feature that does not change from year to year. We always read the Parsha of Nitzavim. What is it about this Parsha of a mere forty verses that make it required reading for the final Shabbos of every year? There are various fundamental themes in Judaism that include Free Will and Teshuva that are recorded in Nitzavim. I will highlight one central theme of the Parsha, which is necessary to internalize before bringing in the New Year. These words feature an unusual characteristic marking above the written words in the Torah. It has several dots above these words. Indeed, if you look into a Sefer Torah, you will see these dots above the words וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד־עוֹלָם. This is translated as the “revealed are to our children and us forever.” This is a continuation of the beginning of the verse  “ the hidden belongs to Hashem our G-d.” The deeper meaning here is that the private action of Man is under the purview of the Al-Mighty, for better or worse. However, what Man does in public is the responsibility of the Jewish Nation. The Rabbis have interpreted this to mean that we are responsible for one another. In Hebrew, this dictum is famous as כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה. The literal translation is that we are the guarantors of one another. The role of a guarantor carries great responsibility. It reflects a legal commitment for the borrower who committed a liability. The Chofetz Chaim writes that if a guarantor sees the borrower act in a financially irresponsible maaner, he will be worried as ultimately he assumes responsibility. Similarly, the Chofetz Chaim wrote that if we see the majority of Jews estranged from Torah Judaism, then we bear the responsibility for that. It is unfortunate for us to shrug our shoulders when hearing about the deteriorating numbers of Jews engaged in Judaism. It’s incumbent for every one of us to be the best ambassadors that we can be for G-d and Torah Judaism. The notion of being responsible and a guarantor has brought out the best in Jews over the years. We most recently witnessed it with the collapse of the Surfside towers. Immediately after the tragedy, a group of Israeli soldiers boarded a plane to travel to the other side of the world to assist in a most daunting challenge. That is being a guarantor to the highest degree. As we read the final Parsha of the year, it is a timely reminder that ultimately we are all in this together.  Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch   

Friday, August 20, 2021

Always a Tourist

As we prepare for the upcoming New Year, various practices and adjustments are made in our morning and evening liturgy during this month of Elul. At the conclusion of services, we recite Chapter 27 of Tehilim/Psalms, known as L'David. The highlight of the prayer is King David declares his deepest desire is to "dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of his life and visit in His sanctuary." His lifelong ambition is to be in the House of G-d for all the days of his life. Why does he request merely to be a  visitor? This request would qualify him as a long-term resident!!! The thrill of a tourist visiting a world-class destination is unmatched in its excitement and elation. I recall my trip a few years ago to Lake Louise in Banff, Alberta, Canada. It was probably the most beautiful place I have ever visited. Judging the reactions of my fellow tourists at the time, I think they shared similar thoughts. People were speechless when they first arrived at the lake as there were no words to describe the natural beauty they encountered adequately. As with most tourist areas, a guy was selling cold beverages and ice cream at the lake. The individual seemed to be quite stressed from his everyday work experiences not unlike most people who have had that stress at their job. But-- this was the most tranquil and idyllic location! How can the environment not have a calming effect on him? The obvious answer is that because this vendor had seen this place so frequently, he became so desensitized to the location. That is the reality of human nature; no matter how wonderful something is, we begin to lose appreciation when we experience this regularly or frequently. That is what King David was referring to in Chapter 27. He wanted to be in the House of G-d every day of his life, but he never wanted to lose a tourist's feeling when visiting an awesome sight. This is a timeless message for us and especially acute in the month of Elul. We may have become so familiar with the rituals and practices of Judaism that we may no longer appreciate its beauty and meaning. Therefore, let us be in the House of G-d both literally and figuratively and feel as if it's our first time. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch 

Friday, August 13, 2021

The Greatest Educator

As schools around the world go back into session, it is once again time to appreciate the tireless efforts of all the educators that pour their sweat and blood into the infrastructure that not only teaches our children but provides them a platform to succeed in the future. The teachers make great sacrifices to educate the children thus giving them the tools to succeed in the future. The dedication of the teachers and educators is evident all the time but especially during COVID. There have been many protocols that teachers have had to adopt to ensure a safe environment for teaching and learning despite the pandemic. The pandemic has triggered all sorts of emotions from every sector and our educators have been in the front line in receiving all sorts of feedback that has not always been positive. It is for this reason and more that it is important for all of us to be so appreciative of all the efforts that teachers and administrators make during this fragile era. I think we should be mindful of this regardless of whether we have children in a particular school or even have children that are still of school age. It’s important to acknowledge all of the efforts of our teachers and administrator. The impact that a teacher or mentor can sometimes surpass the lifetime and generation of the individual. One such impactful figure whose influence is felt all over the world in many Orthodox Jewish schools today has been Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel (1849-1927) in a small town in Lithuania called Slabodka. He was also known by his Yiddish nickname as the Alter (elder) of Slabodka. He was a modest unassuming man that arguably had one of the most profound influences in the Jewish world during the last century. Many of his students went on to start their own educational institutions in the U.S.A., Europe and Israel. These students in turn went on to have many more students that became great leaders and opened even more schools and yeshivas to further influence our generation today. What was the secret sauce of the Alter that allowed his influence to flourish all over the world nearly a century after his passing? The foundation of the Alter’s educational philosophy was the Greatness of Man. He emphasized to his students that Man has unlimited potential as we were created in the image of G-d. This message was very empowering and refreshing for his students. They felt they were freed from the shackles of mediocrity and went on to achieve outstanding results. When a student feels that he or she can make an unparalleled contribution, this motivates the student to conquer plateaus that were previously thought unimaginable. The Alter lived the motto of good leaders create followers but great leaders create leaders. As I so look forward to watching the children making their way back into their classrooms and feel so indebted to their teacher for inculcating them with this empowering philosophy, I also muse about the sage from a small village in Lithuania who created this movement. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, August 6, 2021

The Pre Season Is Important!

It is this time of year that holds promise for every beleaguered fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars. The perennial suffering that local football fans have endured for so many years seems to be in jeopardy with a complete overhaul and not to mention the prize of the number one draft pick. The comprehensive analysis of the Jags season is something beyond the scope of this space, and quite frankly, I feel unqualified to have an informed opinion on the subject. The angle that I want to highlight is the amount of time in training camp and the pre-season it takes to prepare for the regular season adequately. There are at least six weeks of intensive training that includes rigorous workouts and drills. The rationale for this lengthy preparation is evident as it would seem absurd to show up on the day of the start of the season and expect to succeed. It is only with proper planning and preparation that one can anticipate a season with success. This notion of proper planning should resonate with us as we welcome the month of Elul this Shabbos. Elul has been traditionally known as the time to prepare for the Jewish Calendar's most holy and auspicious days. The start of Elul is a reality check that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are around the corner. These awesome days are traditionally a call to get closer to G-d and his Divine Word. It is also essential to get in touch with our inner selves to have a healthy relationship with G-d. One can get there with appropriate reflection and introspection. This process is not like your favorite dish being prepared in the instant pot. This program of reflection and introspection needs a month, which is why we are blessed to have Elul. It may appear fanciful to show up on the day of Rosh Hashanah and dip the apple in honey and wish your friend a good year. As we know from every area of life that success on the field or corporate office doesn't just happen. It takes serious and careful planning to have an outcome that is rewarded with excellence. As the sage in Pirkei Avos taught, "the day is short, and the work is great." The opportunity of Elul lies in front of us, and the clock is ticking. This year more than ever, when we feel the gravity of Rosh Hashanah approaching, let us not squander the gift of Elul. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Is Orthodox Judaism Fundamentalism?

A firestorm of controversy has erupted over a recently released series on Netflix entitled My Unorthodox Life. It features an individual who chose to discontinue her practice as an Orthodox Jew. The individual now alleges that the practices of Orthodox Jews and its commitment to halachic observance as fundamentalism. The individual is not content with her own decision to leave her faith but campaigns her family and others to abandon their commitment to faith. There are too many distortions and inaccuracies depicted in this series and, quite frankly, beyond this space's scope. Instead, I would like to address and respond to a central theme of the series. The show's primary theme is that halachic observance is full of illogical restrictions and results in fundamentalism which the show compares to Muslim Fundamentalism. Unfortunately, this narrative misrepresents the entire purpose of the Mitzvos and why we have an opportunity and privilege to adhere to it. Our Rabbis have taught that Mitzvos are a means of connection to G-d in this world. When a person fulfills a mitzvah, the individual connects to G-dliness and holiness in this world. If an individual does not recognize the true meaning of Mitzvos and halachic practices, he will consider the ritual as a mindless restriction. It is our responsibility to properly educate our children and students that the ultimate purpose of the Mitzvos is because G-d loves us and gave us a medium of connection to Him in our finite days of this world. This idea is articulated in this weeks parsha, as it states וַיְצַוֵּנוּ ה' לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת־כָּל־הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה לְיִרְאָה אֶת־ה' אֱלֹקינוּ לְטוֹב לָנוּ כָּל־הַיָּמִים. This is translated as "Hashem our G-d commanded us to perform these Mitzvos and to be in awe of Him, as it is good for us". Every time a person stands in prayer and utters the words Baruch Attah Hashem or Blessed are you G-d, he gets more connected to the divine presence of the Al-Mighty. Indeed, it is sad and painful to go around mindlessly practicing rituals without appreciating the larger mission of connecting to G-d and having a relationship with Him in this world. Even if a person does not choose to outwardly abandon their halachic observance, they walk around unfulfilled and empty. The damage that this Netflix series will cause remains to be seen. There has been a variety of reactions from the Jewish Twitterverse and beyond. My Unorthodox Life should serve as a wake-up call for all of us to examine the consequences when a healthy relationship with Hashem is not at the foundation of Orthodox Jewish life. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch 

Friday, July 16, 2021

Reflections for Tish B'av

As we approach the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, we are once again asked and called upon to mourn over the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. This particular year, the notion of mourning for a tragic event that took place nearly two thousand years ago seems more distant than ever. Yes, of course, the destruction of the holiest site in Judaism was a terrible tragedy. Still, one can reasonably ask, with everything going on in the chaotic times of 2021, don’t we have more pressing things on our mind to be concerned about than the destruction of a Temple that occurred nearly two thousand years ago? There’s a raging pandemic of Anti-Semitism that appears to be not only increasing but gaining a prominent foothold even in the previously thought Goldene Medina (golden country) of America. There doesn’t appear to be an area of mainstream American society that is immune from this ancient form of hatred directed against our people. American Jews were rudely reminded of this reality during the most recent round of hostilities in Gaza. There were several Jews that were physically attacked in broad daylight by individuals that simply used the Gaza conflict as a pretext to shield their Jew-hatred. American Jews are starting to ask themselves really uncomfortable questions, including if the unthinkable can occur in the Land of the Free. With this growing crisis in the background, why is there such a requirement to mourn over an ancient tragedy? It’s important to remember that the mandate to mourn on Tisha B’av is not simply for the destruction of the Jewish Temple/ Beis Hamikdash. That tragic event reflected a new world order that we are still suffering from.—The world at that time of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash went into a state of Hester Panim or G-d’s concealed face. The basic understanding of this is that although G-d’s presence is always in this world, the manifestation of His presence is far less profound and significant than in earlier generations. The destruction of the holiest site in Judaism reflected the reality of a spiritually bereft world. Unfortunately, we have only slipped further in our state of Hester Panim. This somewhat explains an issue that has vexed our community of faith for centuries. We struggle to reconcile how a just and benevolent G-d can allow such pain and tragedy to occur in this world. While this question can never fully find a satisfactory answer, understanding the concept of Hester Panim gives us some context. This spiritually bereft world with G-d’s hidden face begins to explain (but not entirely) how there can be such pain and tragedy in the times that we find ourselves. The partial removal of His presence allow blessings to be absent and curses to multiply. When we sit on the floor and mourn on Tisha B’av it would be worthwhile to not only reflect on the awful consequences of Hester Panim but also to pray for the day when G-d’s face is no longer hidden from us but revealed to us in the fullest way possible with our people reunified in a rebuilt Beis Hamikdash in Jerusalem! Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch 

Friday, June 11, 2021

Servant Leadership

Let's call a spade a spade. The narrative of this week's Parsha is utterly depressing. The (arguably) most exceptional Jewish leader of all time, Moshe faces an uprising against his leadership. The rebellion, which started with some grumbling and resulted in a full-out assault on the communal structure, was led by a cousin of Moshe who, prior to that moment, was well respected and devout. Korach declared, "You have gone too far! The whole community is holy; every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then, do you set yourselves above God's congregation!"  This criticism deserves careful analysis. After all, Korach was correct in his assessment that the entire congregation was holy and G-d was with everyone. If that indeed was the case, why was the challenge to Moshe an illegitimate one? The commentaries point out that there was nothing wrong with stating their position that everyone is holy. Everyone stood at Mt. Sinai and heard from G-d that you are a holy nation. The dangerous error was the latter part of the statement, "why do you set yourselves above G-d's congregation.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote the following on this subject: "The most famous buildings in the ancient world were the Mesopotamian ziggurats and Egyptian pyramids. These were more than just buildings. They were statements in stone of a hierarchical social order. They were wide at the base and narrow at the top. At the top was the king or pharaoh – at the point, so it was believed, where heaven and earth met. Beneath was a series of elites, and beneath them the laboring masses. This was believed to be not just one way of organizing a society but the only way. The very universe was organized on this principle, as was the rest of life. The sun ruled the heavens. The lion ruled the animal kingdom. The king ruled the nation. That is how it was in nature. That is how it must be. Some are born to rule, others to be ruled.[2] Judaism is a protest against this kind of hierarchy. Every human being, not just the king, is in the image and likeness of God. Therefore no one is entitled to rule over any other without their assent. There is still a need for leadership because without a conductor an orchestra would lapse into discord. Without a captain, a team might have brilliant players and yet not be a team. Without generals, an army would be a mob. Without government, a nation would lapse into anarchy. "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes" (Judges 17:6). In a social order in which everyone has equal dignity in the eyes of heaven, a leader does not stand above the people. He serves the people, and he serves God. The great symbol of biblical Israel, the menorah, is an inverted pyramid or ziggurat, broad at the top, narrow at the base. The greatest leader is therefore the most humble. This model of leadership has been the hallmark of effective Jewish leadership throughout the ages. About 100 years ago, a very impactful Rabbi and educator in Eastern Europe championed this approach. His name was Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, who was also known as the Alter of Slabodka. His philosophy was not to create a group of followers but rather to cultivate and create a new generation of leaders. Years later, his namesake, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel became the Rosh Yeshiva of the Mir Yerushalayim. Under his leadership, the Mir Yeshiva grew to the largest in the world with thousands of students under his tutelage. I was fortunate to be one of the students with my arrival in Israel in 1997. His leadership was all about working to facilitate opportunities for his students to reach vicissitudes of greatness. His impact was not limited to the students enrolled in the Mir Yeshiva. His sphere of influence reached many different parts of the globe. One of the individuals who was touched by Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel's leadership was Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks. Schultz penned an op-ed in the New York Times about the lessons in leadership he learned from the sage. He wrote the following: A decade ago, I visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem with Nosson Tzvi Finkel, a widely respected rabbi in Israel. As we approached one of the holiest sites in Judaism, the Rabbi halted about 10 yards away as a crowd of admirers gathered nearby. I beckoned him further. "I've never been closer than this," the Rabbi told me. Astounded, I asked why. "You go," he said. "I'm not worthy."   From Moshe onward, our most outstanding leaders taught us the value of servant leadership. This notion of a leader is to serve the people. The grave mistake of Korach was his flawed understanding of leadership. He didn't understand that those who serve do not lift themselves high. They serve to lift other people high. That was the educational philosophy of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel. He was a leader who was not looking to have followers. He was a leader looking to create great leaders. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, June 4, 2021

Reflections on COVID

The last fifteen months have been extraordinarily challenging on many levels. Our generation was afflicted with a lethal pandemic that few people anticipated would occur in our lifetime. The world as we knew it unraveled, and many societal norms fell by the side. Congregational and communal life did not have immunity in the pandemic. Along with shuls around the world, our shul made the unprecedented and painful decision to close its doors in March of 2020 with the hope of containing an unknown and unpredictable virus from spreading throughout our community. In May of 2020, we began a phased and deliberate reopening of our beloved shul. We started with outdoor minyanim held in the parking lot and eventually moved back to the building with strict protocols. We assembled a blue-ribbon COVID task force and gave them the responsibility of advising us through this unknown maze. Our task force is comprised of lay leaders, physicians, and rabbis and meets regularly to assess and evaluate the situation on the ground regularly. All the taskforce's decisions and policies were guided by two core values to which we profess our fidelity. Those two values are Pikuach Nefesh/Saving Lives and Communal Tefila. Every decision that was made was because of our steadfast commitment to our values. One value that regrettably did not make it to the top of the list was convenience. We recognize that many of the protocols, including mandatory mask wearing, were inconvenient and burdensome. While we regret some of the inconveniences that we had to endure, we are proud of our accomplishments over the last year since our phased reopening began. To our knowledge, while several individuals tested positive for COVID in our community, there wasn't any transmission of the virus in the shul building! We are also proud that we have a consistent daily minyan under sometimes very trying circumstances without missing a day! It is a remarkable testament to this community, and we are so grateful to everyone that participated in our Daily Minyan! I also want to express my appreciation to all the members of the COVID taskforce for spending so much time and energy on this most important issue.  As we thank G-d seem to be finally turning a corner with COVID, we are pleased to move forward with the next phase of the reopening that will roll back the policy of mandatory mask-wearing. This is an important milestone, and we first and foremost need to be thankful to G-d for getting us to this moment. I believe that this is an essential time for reflection as hopefully, the harsh reality of COVID continues to fade in our lives. One of the outcomes of COVID was the widening gap of trust and respect among different groups and people. There is a diversity of viewpoints on many issues, including public health. Unfortunately, disagreement sometimes leads to polarization and division. It's essential to realize that while others may not share your view on critical issues; it's imperative to engage in respectful dialogue. Achdus or Unity is quite easy with people with like-minded opinions. It is slightly more challenging to foster achdus/unity with people that we disagree. Yet, that is our challenge, and we must live up to the moment.  COVID has created a new reality in many areas of life. Some are positive, and some are disappointing. Healthy dialogue, Derech Eretz  and respect for people with differing views mustn't become another casualty of the pandemic. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, May 28, 2021

Gratitude for the Greatest Sacrifice

America begins its unofficial start to the summer with the arrival of Memorial Day weekend. People will be flocking to the beach, firing up the grill for barbeques, and shopping for mattress sales. It's important to pause and reflect on what this day is actually about. Memorial Day is not just a day off of work or school. It is a federal holiday in the United States for honoring and mourning the military personnel who have made the ultimate sacrifice and died in the performance of their military duties while serving in the United States Armed Forces.  As Jews living in the United States, I believe it is imperative for us to be grateful for the ultimate sacrifice that thousands of members of the U.S. Armed made during the Second World War. It will be 77 years this week, since June 6, 1944, when the Allied Forces stormed the beaches of Normandy to fight the Nazis. There is an argument to be made that these heroic individuals made the greatest sacrifice in the history of the world. On those few days, nearly 10,000 soldiers were killed. The Allied casualties were comprised of American, British, and Canadian soldiers. Those brave men knew they were going to near-certain death but did so because that was the only way to stop the Nazi conquest from spreading. Although there were high casualties initially, eventually, the Allies broke the Nazi stronghold, and the tide of the war shifted toward the eventual defeat of the Nazis. It's hard to imagine now, but had the Allied Forces not intervened and defeated the Nazis, it would have most likely meant defeat of the Jewish People as we know it. Hitler made no secret about it. He had wanted the world to be Judenrein. The only thing standing in the way of his global ambitions from being carried out were the Allied Forces fighting back with of course, the help of G-d. The fact that the Jewish people survived not only to live another day, but to rebuild a modern Jewish State in their ancient homeland and find a benevolent refuge in America, could only have happened because of those Allied soldiers' great sacrifice. Today in Colleville-Sur-Mer, France, there are 9,387 heroes laid to rest in the Normandy American Cemetery. Among them, 149 Jewish headstones are marked with a Star of David. Regardless of which religious symbol occupies the soil, the righteousness of the soldiers that lie on that sacred ground will never be forgotten for the rest of history.  On several of my trips to Washington, I have found myself pulled to the World War Two Memorial in our nation's capital. There is a large inscription with the following words from President Harry S Truman: OUR DEBT TO THE HEROIC MEN AND VALIANT WOMEN IN THE SERVICE OF OUR COUNTRY CAN NEVER BE REPAID. THEY HAVE EARNED OUR UNDYING GRATITUDE. AMERICA WILL NEVER FORGET THEIR SACRIFICES. In an age when sacrifice and commitment have evolved into newer understandings, let us pause and reflect with tremendous Hakaras Hatov toward those without whom we would not have lived to see a better day.  May their memory be a blessing. יהי זכרם ברוך Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, May 21, 2021

Reflections on a Ceased Fire

As a tenuous ceasefire takes hold in Israel, I think it is imperative to reflect on the situation we find ourselves in and not pretend that all is ok because a ceasefire was announced. While there are many layers to this situation, not least the security of Israel and the continued threats to its existence, I would like to unpack a few factors that should weigh heavily on the collective mind of the American Jewish Community.  It's essential to recognize that 2021 is not the same as 2014 and definitely not 2009 regarding how America perceives Israel and its neighbors. The support of Israel by the United States Congress used to be a non-issue and a strong basis of bi-partisan support. Unfortunately, there appear to be cracks in the wall of support. There are presently a small but growing and influential number of Members of Congress who are not only indifferent to Israel's predicament but also openly hostile to its well-being. It was quite alarming that at the height of recent hostilities, when Israel was facing a barrage of thousands of rockets to its civilians, there was a measure introduced in Congress to block Israel from securing much needed funding for its defense. Equally disturbing was the backlash from the Congressional leadership on AIPAC for daring to criticize a Member of Congress who essentially was serving as the spokesperson for Hamas on Capitol Hill. The tenor and conversation have changed in Washington, and it should concern everyone no matter what your preferred political party is. Secondly, it is deeply worrisome about the violence directed at Jews throughout America. As mobs of anti-Israel people demonstrated against Israel, it quickly spread to violence in several cities, including New York and Los Angeles. Patrons of kosher restaurants were attacked and Jews were verbally and physically assaulted in several communities. For anyone that thinks that the animosity towards Israel and the Jewish People is limited to the Middle East, this was a rude awakening.  Finally, it was dispiriting to see the apathy to Israel from a growing number of people in the American Jewish Community. As we become more assimilated, it is no surprise to see increased disengagement and indifference towards the Jewish State. This week's widely read article in the NY Times highlighted the estrangement of many younger American Jews towards Israel. It quoted a 26-year-old Jewish woman who volunteers in Boston with IfNotNow, a network of Jewish activists who want to end Jewish American support for Israel, has found protesting for the Palestinian cause to be its own form of religious observance. Unfortunately, these groups can no longer be dismissed as fringe and irrelevant as their voices are growing stronger, and of course, they embolden our adversaries.   I heard once from a rabbinic colleague that the role of rabbi should sometimes be to comfort the afflicted and sometimes to afflict the comforted. I take no pleasure in choosing the latter this week. If recent events are not a wake-up call for us to strengthen our connection to G-d, the Land of Israel, and our fellow Jews, I am unsure what can be. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, May 14, 2021

Israel in Crisis

The Land of Israel has once again become ground zero on the world stage. In just four days, Hamas has rained down nearly 2,000 rockets into Israel. The vaunted Iron Dome has struggled to keep up with the barrage of missiles as the terror organizations attempt to overwhelm the defense capabilities and inflict maximum casualties on the Jewish State. It's essential to understand what the agenda of the terror organizations are and why they deliberately are putting their own citizens in harm's way to advance their nefarious plan. It's not because of a property dispute between Jews and Arabs in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. It's not because of the infringement of the right to worship for any Muslims on Temple Mount. Ironically, according to secular Israeli law, although Jews may enter Temple Mount with special permission, we are forbidden to pray on Temple Mount. There have been stories of Jews getting arrested by Israeli police on Temple Mount for merely reciting a chapter of Tehilim/Psalms. What than is the reason of all this violence that these Palestinian terror organizations have unleashed? It's a very simple yet uncomfortable truth. They are declaring war against the very notion of a Jewish State in its ancient homeland. They are declaring to the world that the Jewish people have no right to be in their homeland. Over the years, they have become more sophisticated and graduated from throwing stones to shooting missiles for hundreds of kilometers into Israel. The rejection of the existence of Israel is what this is about and what they are fighting for. Israel, of course, recognizes the battle that it faces and its security forces are working around the clock to ensure its citizens remain secure. It's important to remember that although we may be geographically distant, we can do much to assist in this time of crisis. Our Rabbis have taught about the importance of turning to prayer in times of distress. It behooves all of us to take a few extra moments out of our day and daven for our brethren in the Land of Israel. It is imperative to pray on behalf of the members of the Israel Defense Forces who put themselves in harm's way to protect us all. We should not delude ourselves into the false sense of security over here and assume that only the Jews in Israel are in danger. There is Jewish blood being spilled all over, and we are in desperate need of the Guardian of Israel to deliver salvation. It's time to move past internal divisions and turn our hearts to our Father in Heaven. The world is in turmoil. The call has been put out. What else are we waiting for? Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, May 7, 2021

Struggling with Faith

Keeping the faith these days is not an easy thing. It was heart-wrenching to observe the funeral of the 45 victims of the Miron tragedy. I found myself watching a couple of the funerals on the live stream this past Sunday. There was a eulogy given by a father who flew in from the United States to Israel in order to bury his 19-year-old son. The searing pain that one could feel from the father's voice was palpable and vivid. This scene played itself out in funeral after funeral as young parents bid goodbye to their young children who they never see again on this earth. There are many angles of pain and hurt to this story, and it's a challenge to our faith when we witness the holy and the pure taken from us while visiting a sacred site. How do we begin to make sense of this? This is particularly troublesome for a community of faith that struggles to reconcile a just and benevolent G-d with the cruel and painful reality that we are confronted with now.  If we are having our doubts about the hand of G-d in our lives, then we are in good company. The Haftorah of this Parsha Behar (that is not read this week since we read the Haftorah of the second Parsha of Bechukosai) retells a fascinating story about the prophet Jeremiah. At the onset of the Babylonian invasion of ancient Israel that culminated with the catastrophic destruction of the First Temple, Jeremiah receives a prophecy that seemed extremely bizarre. He was told by G-d to purchase a piece of land from a relative and then put the documents that recorded the sale in earthenware vessels so that they may be preserved for many days. He then proceeds to execute this transaction faithfully and not only purchases the property but conceals the documents in a carefully hidden manner. Jeremiah is very troubled by the directive to buy the land in such a painful and tragic time. Here the spiritual leader of the Jewish people who wanted to comfort his flock in their time of peril was busy with a real estate transaction! He began to question G-d about the timing of the need to purchase the land. The prophet appears at his wit's end with this directive, which coincided with the impending invasion of Israel. He even neglects to address G-d as הנורא or the Awesome One. The Talmud provided the necessary commentary on this as Jeremiah felt that G-d's awesomeness was absent. The Haftorah concludes ominously as G-d says that nothing is hidden from Him. The Rabbis have taught that G-d meant to say that Jeremiah was only looking at the present moment, and indeed, the timing to purchase the real estate seemed odd. On the other hand, the infinite and eternal G-d was planning the return of the Jewish People to Zion and Jerusalem with the purchase of the property.  The notion of being in a state of Hester Panim or G-d's concealed face is troubling because we can't see the chessboard of life displayed in a manner that makes sense. While we do not have any answers to the tragedy on Miron, it would be worthwhile to recall the lesson Jeremiah purchasing the plot of land as we look for ways to strengthen our faith.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Reflecting on a Tragedy

The Jewish World is reeling with intense grief in reaction to the horrific events that occurred at Meron last night on the eve of Lag B’omer. It is difficult to contemplate or fathom the scope of this devastating tragedy. The manner in which dozens of mostly young men lost their lives is beyond traumatic. As of this writing, many people are still missing, and their families are desperate to contact them, not knowing if they are still among the living. There are so many layers to this tragedy that it is hard to process. I will try to give it some context in the best way that I can.  For many in the Orthodox community in Israel, Lag Ba’omer in general and traveling to Meron, in particular, is the highlight of their year. The spiritual connection that people feel at the sacred space of where the revered sage Rabbi Shimon was laid to rest is compelling for hundreds of thousands to make the journey to Mt. Meron in the Galilee on Lag Ba’omer. This year, in particular, the pilgrimage to Meron on Lag Baomer was anticipated with greater fervor than usual. It was as Israel was emerging from the pandemic and finally turning a corner on COVID. On a national level, this was going to be the first massive gathering, and indirectly this was a celebration of the conclusion of COVID. Alas, this was not meant to be. Instead of our brothers and sisters waking up to a festive Lag B’omer, they are waking up to an intensely dark day of burying many people.  As people of faith, this is acutely challenging as we are once again forced to reconcile how a benevolent G-d can allow so many holy and pure souls to be literally trampled to death? Unfortunately, we have a precedent with a great celebration that was marred with tragedy, and that story is recorded in the Torah. As the Mishkan was being inaugurated after many months of great anticipation, tragedy struck with the unexpected death of Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron the Kohen Gadol. The Torah records the reaction of Aaron as “ Va’yidom Aaron,” translated as Aaron was silent. With the unspoken words of Aaron, I believe he was teaching us that there are times when words do not suffice and when they in fact, can be unproductive. No words of comfort will assuage the collective pain in our hearts. We may be willing to accept the justice of G-d, but we know as long as we are in this world, we will never fully understand. For us, in the face of overwhelming tragedy, there is only one response for now: silence. As Aaron taught in the face of immense tragedy, silence may be the most profound communication. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, April 23, 2021

Seeking Holiness

One of the fundamental tenets of Judaism is for us to be a holy people. When G-d propositioned the Jewish People to accept the Torah, it was for us to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. This week's Parsha (the second Parsha) begins with the mandate for us to be a holy people. In fact, G-d tells us to be holy because He is holy. That doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. There are a lot of things that G-d can do that we cannot. G-d is infinite, and we are finite. G-d is eternal, and we are all mortal beings who will die. So the nagging question is, why should we be holy because G-d is holy? After all, there are plenty of differences between an eternal, infinite, and Almighty G-d and a frail human being!! This issue touches upon why the human being was created and why the Jewish People embraced G-d's mission with accepting the Torah. The purpose of this was to infuse Godliness into a world that was mundane and physical. That is the general purpose of the Mitzvos. It is to infuse Godliness and Holiness into everyday life. Although this may be applicable in many areas, there are two areas where the Torah emphasizes connecting Holiness to the particular Mitzvah. Those two areas are the prohibitions to consume non-kosher foods and to engage in forbidden sexual activity. In terms of food, one can wonder what it is that makes bacon unkosher and brisket kosher (when it's appropriately prepared)? It's not because brisket is cleaner, necessarily on a physical level. Instead, every food has spiritual properties as it has physical properties. The spiritual properties of non-kosher food are so corrosive to someone's soul that one should abstain from it as one would abstain from physically toxic foods. On the other hand, Kosher food is embedded with these spiritual properties that have Holiness and enhance our spirituality and soul. Similarly, with sexuality, there are spiritual properties in the relationship. When a man and woman come together under a chuppah their relationship is infused with Holiness and their home now has Godliness embedded in its walls. A sexual relationship outside the confines of the Chupa may consist of two consenting adults, but it falls way short of bringing Holiness into one's home. There are popular arguments for love and equality but Judaism subscribes to a higher value in sexuality, and that is Holiness. Just as in Kosher, there are spiritual properties with the sexual confines of relationship and we have a mandate to live within that higher realm.   There are so many different labels that are used to identify us today.  People sometimes struggle as to how to identify themselves within the Jewish community. I would humbly suggest going back to the original proposition of Judaism that G-d made to our ancestors and seek to embrace Holiness. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, April 16, 2021

My Heart Is In The East

דרש רבי שמלאי מפני מה נתאוה משה רבינו ליכנס לא"י וכי לאכול מפריה הוא צריך או לשבוע מטובה הוא צריך אלא כך אמר משה הרבה מצות נצטוו ישראל ואין מתקיימין אלא בא"י אכנס אני לארץ כדי שיתקיימו כולן על ידי As Israel celebrates its Independence Day, Jews worldwide reflect on what Zion and Jerusalem mean to them. For thousands of years, we have concluded our Pesach Seder and Yom Kippur Service with the uplifting words of “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Under the chuppah, as a couple starts a new life together and their hearts are filled with joy, there is a practice of breaking a glass to demonstrate that their joy is incomplete as long as Jerusalem is not rebuilt. The Talmud (original is quoted above) questions why Moshe so desperately wanted to enter the Land of Israel. For forty years, Moshe encouraged and inspired the Jewish People not to give up hope about the promise that they would enter the Land of Israel. In heartbreaking irony, as everyone would be crossing the Jordan to enter the Promised Land, Moshe would die at the border and not make it into sacred territory. The Talmud probes why Moshe desperately wanted to enter the Land of Israel? Was it to taste the delicious fruits and vegetables? Anyone that has been to Israel knows that the quality of the fruits and vegetables is totally superior to anywhere else! The Talmud responds that Moshe had a burning desire to enter the Land of Israel as one can fulfill multiple more Mitzvahs in Israel than any place in the world. The deeper meaning behind Moshe’s quest was that the more Mitzvahs a person fulfills, that enhances his ability to connect with G-d in this world. Moshe was teaching all of us this fundamental truth in Judaism. The ideal place for a Jew to live and spend their time in this world is the Land of Israel. Whatever one feels about the Zionist movement and the State of Israel, it is clear to anyone with eyes and ears that we are witnessing a miracle in front of our eyes. The rebirth of Torah and religious life that is taking place in our ancient homeland would be a mere fantasy to our great grandparents just a few generations back. We hope and pray for the day when we will all return to a rebuilt Beis Hamikdash in Jerusalem. Until than, while we may be physically here, our hearts remain back in Israel.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Making the Most of Everyday

2020 was a strange year in many ways that needs no elaboration. Anecdotally, there was quite an unusual film that was produced at the end of 2020 by Disney called Soul. For decades, the same mass media and entertainment conglomerate that brought us Cinderella and the Beauty and the Beast now presented us with a compelling story that focused on having a neshama/soul and the meaning of life. It's an animated film about this high school teacher Joe Gardner, a pianist and middle school music teacher living in New York City, who dreams of playing jazz professionally. His mother Libba insists that he make his teaching job full time, fearing for his financial security. One day, Joe learns of an opening in the band of jazz legend Dorothea Williams and auditions at a music club. On his way there, he accidentally falls into a manhole and dies. As his soul leaves this world and goes to the next world, he learns that jazz and piano aren't the sole purposes for his existence. By being obsessed by his dreams' lack of success, he has forgotten how to live a fulfilled life and therefore lost that spark. Joe is ultimately given a second chance to come back to this world and declares, "this time, I'm going to live every minute of it."  There is an essential lesson in making the most of every day. Each day that we are fortunate to live and breathe is a blessing, and we would be wise to take advantage of it. I believe that is also an important message behind the Mitzvah to count the Omer every day between Pesach and Shavuos. It is not enough to count the days. We must make our days count. Every single day is precious that is not returning. We can accomplish so much in just one day. The blessing that we make before counting the Omer of, אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו על ספירת העומר The translation is we acknowledge G-d, who sanctified us by providing us with His mitzvos to count the Omer. When we recite the blessing, I suggest that we pause and reflect on the tremendous gift we merit to experience another day and commit to utilizing it in the best way possible. King David put it best when he said, זֶה־הַיּוֹם עָשָׂה ה' נָגִילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה בוֹ " This day G-d created, let us rejoice and be happy with it." Let us make the most of every day!

Friday, March 19, 2021

Do you hear the call?

We begin this week not only a new parsha but a new sefer as we begin to read from the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus). It opens up with the words “Vayikra el Moshe” or “ And He Called to Moshe”. Many of the commentaries have pointed out that though it’s obvious from the text that it’s G-d that called out to Moshe, it doesn’t explicitly say so as it typically does in other textual settings. The Nesivos Shalom quotes the Midrash that there is a heavenly voice that emanates from Mount Sinai on a daily basis and exhorts the Jewish people to repentance. He questions this by asking why can’t we hear this voice that’s emanating from Sinai and if we can’t hear it what’s the point of it being declared? He writes the following profound idea. There is a spiritual energy being released in the world on a daily basis. Some of us make the choice to capitalize on these sparks and internalize them into our soul. This enables us to embark on a journey on self-improvement in this world and allows our soul to connect to G-d in this finite and temporary world through meaningful Torah study, heartfelt prayer, and practicing acts of kindness. Some of us take a look at these spiritual sparks and even experience the spiritual energy that originates from Sinai and just take a pass for whatever reason. Then their souls lie dormant and become atrophied and dehydrated. Unfortunately, this can lead someone to feel that his life has no meaning or purpose. Can anyone say mid-life crisis? That is our challenge. The voice is calling each and every one of us. The only question is, who is going to answer the call? Have a Wonderful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, March 5, 2021

Part of a Bigger Whole

The ancient method of conducting a census was rather strange. Instead of counting heads or writing down the names of all people that were eligible to be counted, there was another unobvious method that carried by our ancestors in the desert after they left Egypt. As our Parsha teaches us, they were told to bring forward a half-shekel coin and contribute that into the public coffers. The amount of the coins contributed would reflect the number of people that needed to be counted. The question still remains to be asked as to why everyone was asked to contribute a half-shekel and not a complete shekel? There are many different answers to this question, and I want to suggest an approach I heard a while back. There are many different ways and paths within the parameters of Halacha of service to G-d. While many people walk down different paths, some prefer to emphasize their personal service or niche in one area more than another. Some areas that I referring to but obviously are not limited to include the study of Torah, prayer, practicing kindness, love of Israel, Kabbalah, Tikkun Olam, etc. We sometimes tend to get so preoccupied in our personal avoda/service that we might not appreciate what others are doing for the Jewish people and bring us closer to G-d. The Half- Shekel lesson teaches us that we are not alone in our service and relationship to G-d but rather part of a greater whole. While it may be wonderful that you are diligent and even excel at what you are doing to help the Jewish People, please remember that others focus on a different task on assisting Klal Yisrael. Just because they are not practicing the same task does not mean there should not be a recognition that we are just part of a greater whole of the Jewish people. For example, in an ideal world, the yeshiva students who are the spiritual guardians with their study of the Torah would be respecting the soldiers of the IDF who are are the physical guardians of the Jewish state. The opposite should be true as well. Sadly, that is not the case. Each side doesn’t recognize the achievement of the other. The lesson of the Half Shekel is more timeless than ever in reminding us that we are just part of a greater bigger picture.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Faith Behind the Mask

As Jews worldwide celebrate Purim this year, we roughly mark the one-year anniversary of COVID making its mark here in the United States. In somewhat of a sad irony, we have been wearing masks all year and not just in observance of Purim. There is a powerful message that we learn from the Megillah that I believe has a special meaning this year in light of the challenges that we are experiencing. There are so many layers of challenges. I would like to focus on the challenge on our faith. We struggle to reconcile how a just and benevolent G-d can allow such pain and suffering to run unabated during a global pandemic. In one way or another, we have cried out and said -- “Almighty G-d, where are you”? The Rabbis make teach us a powerful lesson about Megilas Esther as it’s unique among all the Books of Tanach. There is not one mention of G-d’s name in the Megila. That sounds pretty strange. One might think that as one of the volumes of the Bible, it would have the name of G-d referenced in it even it was a mild reference. This omission was intentional. The lesson the Rabbis teach us is that the Purim miracle was done in a covert fashion yet it was still the hand of G-d that instrumental in orchestrating certain key events. For example, how likely that a young Jewish woman would end up being selected as the new queen? In fact, the Talmud, address this by stating, אסתר מן התורה מנין ואנכי הסתר אסתיר. The translation is, where there is a reference to Esther in the Torah. The response is a verse in the Book of Devarim which states that G-d says that I will conceal My face on that day. The larger message here is that miracle of Purim was unlike earlier miracles in Jewish history. The story with Mordechai and Esther could have read as a novel with a villain and the heroine coming through at the right time for her people. A bunch of coincidences that just happen to add up. The Rabbis teach us it is precisely for that reason the name of G-d is not mentioned in the Megilah. To teach us this supremely important fundamental tenet of Judaism: the presence of G-d may be concealed but His salvation may always be at a moment’s notice. There have been many long days and nights over the past year in which the tragic news piled up, yet we are a people of faith and believe in better days ahead. As we say in our prayers, מי שענה למרדכי ואסתר בשושן הבירה הוא יעננו, May the One who answered Mordechai and Esther in Shushan, answer us as well!!

Friday, February 19, 2021

Dealing with Donor Fatigue

One of the fixtures of modern Jewish life that has caused us fatigue is fundraisers. Every Jewish not-for-profit organization is inherently operating at a deficit, so the solution seems to be a fundraiser. There are so many worthy causes both locally and abroad and we get solicited all the time and that it results in donor fatigue. Someone commented that one of the benefits of COVID was that he and his spouse didn’t feel compelled to go to so many charity events. Those comments particularly saddened me. With the advent of the matching campaigns that are now quite popular, several of these campaigns reach out to me several times a month, and I understand the challenge of trying to stay motivated and financially afloat to participate in all these mitzvah opportunities. The truth is that we can learn an important lesson from the first fundraising campaign in Jewish history, and that is the construction of the Mishkan/Tabernacle. G-d in communicating the directive to Moshe says וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְרוּמָה This is literally translated as you shall take for Me a donation. This sounds like a strange way of articulating a solicitation. Wouldn’t it be much more straight forward to say ויתנו לי or you shall give Me? The Rabbis throughout the millennia, have suggested a simple yet profound message. When we are presented with an opportunity to share our material resources for a good cause we ultimately are the beneficiary. Although it may appear that we are the benefactors, the opposite is true. The truth is that all the material wealth that we possess in this world is not truly ours, we are merely the stewards over that. Every once in a while there is an economic crisis in which we are rudely reminded of this truth (Can anyone say COVID?). G-d in His infinite wisdom gives us many opportunities to be givers and share our material resources with others. The Talmud in the Tractate of Bava Basra states that someone challenged Rabbi Akiva and asked him if G-d really loves the poor, why does He not directly provide them sustenance? His response was to allow us to do this Mitzvah. I think of this question in the modern language. If G-d loved the shuls, yeshivas, day schools, Bais Yaakovs, Mikvaos, etc., why is there always such a dearth of funds available? Why are there so many fundraising campaigns? The answer in 2021 is just the same as it was during the time of the Mishkan and during the time of Rabbi Akiva -- to allow us the opportunity to give.

Monday, February 15, 2021

A Lesson In Gratitude

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 last year, 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 through the lens of entitlement. A person that wakes up with that perspective and views everything as 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 normally 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 a 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.

Friday, February 5, 2021

The Life of Day One

It's been some time since the word Amazon is no longer immediately associated with being the largest rainforest in the world. It's been just about 25 years since Jeff Bezos started selling books online from his garage. Today, the word Amazon reflects dominance in the marketplace that arguably no other company in the world can claim. There is practically no industry or area of life in that Amazon does not have a significant role. Mr. Bezos also has a net worth of nearly cool 200 billion dollars. For these reasons and more, it was more than newsworthy this week when Bezos announced his retirement from the position of CEO. He is now transitioning to the role of Executive Chairman. In the letter released to his employees informing them of this big news, he concluded his statement with the following words. "It remains Day 1." That seems like a bizarre way to conclude a special announcement. What kind of code word was that? Day 1 is a fundamental philosophy that has guided Amazon from a small garage to becoming one of the world's most dominant companies. Day 1 is about keeping the same passion and enthusiasm that a startup has. Day 1 means that Amazon will always act like a startup. Bezos has argued to his team that the opposite of Day 1 is Day 2. That is not just a cute statement. He wrote, "Day 2 means stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day One at Amazon." The notion of always maintaining a Day One approach in life easier said than done. That is so challenging, as we know from any area of life that complacency has a corrosive effect on the things we cherish most in life. From the state of our marriages to our relationship with G-d and His Torah, the initial Day One experience wears off rather quickly, and we struggle to find meaning in these essential areas. Inspiration and passion fade to mindlessly performing rituals out of habit or mouthing the words of prayer. The Day 2 experience has taken hold of our lives in many ways and we walk around feeling empty and unfulfilled. This week we once again read about the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The most extraordinary event in human history occurred when an entire nation heard the Divine word and accepted to be His ambassadors for the mission of spreading Godliness and holiness in the world. That was our Day 1 moment. In the Shema, we read the following words אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם. This is translated as "that I command you today." Wasn't the giving of the Torah thousands of years ago? (The giving of the Torah occurred 3,333 years ago). The meaning of the word הַיּוֹם/today is very simple. It means that we should always work on a Day 1 philosophy in our Judaism. The mountain of a Day 1 life is not an easy one to climb. It's important to remember that just as with Amazon, the alternative to Day 1 in our relationships and commitment to faith is Day 2, and that's a life of indefinite unfulfillment.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Reminder of the Obvious

Certain fundamental values often get overlooked or don't get enough attention. That is not necessarily because people don't believe in the matter or disagree with it but because it may be so evident that it gets overlooked. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (1707-1746), in his magnum opus, the Mesilas Yesharim, wrote the following words in his introduction. "I have written this work not to teach people what they don't know but rather to remind them of what they already know and clearly understand. However, to the degree that these rules are well known and their truth self evident, they are routinely overlooked or people forget about them altogether." One area that falls into this category, in my opinion, is gratitude. There are so many people in our lives that contribute to our well being that frequently get overlooked. We need to open our eyes and be more cognizant of all the people that make all sorts of contributions. One group of people we tend to overlook, I believe, are the maintenance personnel of our organizations. These men and women work hard to keep our facilities clean and neat, so we can come to shul and have a pleasant davening experience. They wash our floors and clean our toilets without any fanfare or bringing any attention to themselves. Yet, they provide an essential service for our benefit, and they deserve to be recognized and appreciated. The fact they get paid and compensated for their work is not a reason for us not to appreciate them. For this reason, I was very glad that we had the opportunity this week to publicly acknowledge and recognize Ariadna and Maribel, who are responsible for cleaning the shul and school. During COVID, there has been an increased workload on these two women, and they have been working hard to get our campus not only clean but safe. I once commented to Ariadna that we don't view her job as merely cleaning the building but rather as someone who brings joy into our campus with her work. Rabbi Horowitz made a public presentation in the presence of all the students of Torah Academy about the importance of appreciating and recognizing these women for all their hard work. As I was listening to him, I thought that this was a most valuable lesson to pass along to our children and students. It's important for us to reflect on how many people in our lives enhance our quality of life even in a small way and for us to make a more concerted effort to recognize and appreciate those individuals. Gratitude is not just a nice thing to practice. As Rabbi Luzzato wrote, sometimes we need a reminder of the most important values in Judaism.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Making Deposits

No matter what side of the political aisle you stand on, this week was quite significant. The changing of administrations is always a big deal, but this year, it was quite the event. For the sake of the country, we hope and pray that our new President and his administration successfully respond to a nation in crisis. I have observed how many people were so emotionally invested in the recent election season. Declarations such as "we will not have a country if the other candidate gets elected" were heard throughout the long election cycle. While it's essential to participate in the democratic process and advocate our voice to elected officials, it can become all-consuming. Now that the election and recent inauguration are in the rearview mirror, I believe it's important to reflect on how and where we invest so much emotional energy. I would like to humbly recommend that perhaps we pivot away much of our emotional energy to the relationships and people in our lives that actually can benefit from it. We can get a much better return on investment from the time we spend on cultivating and improving these relationships. I am referring to the most important relationships in our lives that include our spouses, parents, and children. With our spouses, there is a wide range of how successful or not a marriage can be. It can vary from excellent and hitting on all cylinders to a failed union that's headed towards divorce. In the middle are a vast number of marriages that have some sort of peaceful coexistence. The couple may share a house and even a bedroom, but they might be coexisting and not thriving. I think it's worthwhile to reflect on how we all can go from good to great in this most important area. I want to share an important lesson in this area I learned from John Gottman, a noted expert in this field. He describes that it's important to build a joint Emotional Bank Account for your marriage. Every time you are generous with your spouse's feelings, you are depositing in the Emotional Bank Account. And when you turn away from your spouse, you make a withdrawal. Like a real bank account, a zero balance is trouble, and a negative balance is the real danger zone. An Emotional Bank Account grows when spouses make more deposits than withdrawals. The difference between happy and unhappy couples is how they manage their Emotional Bank Account. When the Emotional Bank Account is in the red, spouses tend to question each other's intentions and feel disconnected, or even lonely. But when the Emotional Bank Account is in the green, spouses tend to give each other the benefit of the doubt during the conflict. They keep their relationship in a positive perspective. A withdrawal from the Emotional Bank Account is inevitably going to happen with all the stress in life. That is why I believe it is essential to be aware of the regular need to make these necessary deposits. This week, we observed that presidents come and go (every four years or eight years), and our influence on that process is rather limited. Let's refocus our attention on the most important relationship in our lives where our investment into the Emotional Bank Account can really make a difference.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Finding Our Voice

The story of our people forming into a nation comes into sharp focus in this week’s Parsha. G-d told Moshe to communicate a message of hope, optimism, and redemption. G-d communicates the loftiest message of what would be known later as the four expressions of redemption. The Exodus of Egypt would be followed by G-d formally taking us as his nation and the Jewish People entering the Holy Land as its eternal homeland. Just reading this thousand of years later sometimes gives me goosebumps. Moshe arrives to tell his oppressed flock this uplifting message. The reaction he received was terribly disappointing. The Torah teaches us that the people didn’t listen to Moshe from shortness of breath and from hard labor. The response to this overwhelming positive message is nothing short of astounding. A nation that had been slaves for so long and suffered much oppression was finally turning the corner, and they were unable to hear the message of redemption! The condition of shortness of breath is the result of a person living in a hyper stressed environment. A person suffers not only in an emotional manner but also spiritually and physically. This high level of stress and anxiety can become so overwhelming that we lose our ability to listen and process positive news in our daily lives. I believe there is a parallel in our current lives of the condition referred to as shortness of breath. America is a nation under stress. The real-time images of Capitol Hill are nothing short of traumatic. We are witnessing armed troops displaying a very heavy presence in our nation’s capital. All this is to ensure a peaceful transition of power as a new administration comes into office. It was not too long ago if someone saw the images, they might conclude this was in Afghanistan or Iraq. No, this is the United States of America in 2021. No matter which side of the political fence one is on, this turn of events should be saddening for all. Another image coming out of Washington is that all lawmakers go are wearing masks as they conduct their legislative business. That’s another grim reminder of the pandemic and the toll it’s taking on our lives. The accumulative effect of armed troops and masked Members of Congress contributes to our collective state of shortness of breath. Our ancestors ultimately prevailed, and their state shortness of breath proved to be a bump in the road that they overcame. Their journey to redemption was uneven and messy. Their prayers and faith helped them be resilient in their struggles as they overcame their shortness of breath. Let us continue to pray for America's welfare that it be resilient in its state of shortness of breath.

Friday, January 8, 2021

The Unthinkable Occurs in America

The unthinkable has occurred in America. The United States of America, long revered as the beacon of freedom, liberty, and democracy, has a moral stain that will not easily go away. A hallmark feature of democracy is a peaceful transition of power, and our great sadness is that it did not occur this week. As our adversaries around the globe have pointed out, it will be unacceptable for America to lecture any country about the need to have a peaceful transition in their government. The millions of people worldwide who have always looked to America for inspiration in their own quest for liberty and freedom are dispirited and saddened. That is only one consequence of many that may be felt for years into the future. It was traumatic for us to see the citadel of liberty-- the United States Capitol run over by a violent mob that intended to disrupt the legislative proceedings of certifying the presidential election results. It is not just enough to condemn the violence or the individuals that ransacked the Capitol. Moments like these do not occur in a vacuum and require some reflection as to how we got here. We must all undergo a national exercise of soul searching and reflect on what areas of improvement we can all focus on to move forward in a positive way. These are some areas of inflection for me that I would like to share. Two wrongs do not make a right: I found it distressing to hear from people that while this violence may be inappropriate, there is a double standard in acts of rioting or violence by other groups that are tolerated. It's important to acknowledge and take responsibility for any situation in life without equivocating or making any qualifying statements. The first King of Israel, Shaul, was not removed from his position simply because he erred in the battle with Amaleik. It was because he was reticent to take responsibility. His successor, King David, committed multiple infractions and remained King for forty years because he was able to take responsibility for his actions. The Death of Nuance: Over the last several years, as we have slipped more into a caustic polarized environment, the art of nuance has been a casualty. Many issues have become binary choices. One is forced to choose between unlimited gun rights with no limitations or a mandatory confiscation of firearms. One is forced to choose between not allowing any immigrants into the country or complete open borders. As a student of Halacha, I have learned the importance of nuance, even in the most sacred Jewish obligations. One is obligated to fast on Yom Kippur or keep the Shabbos but some situations would exempt one from these Mitzvahs. A casualty of the rhetoric and charged discourse has been thoughtful and a nuanced approach to complex issues, and we must work on improving the nature of the discourse. Losing with Dignity: Nobody likes to lose or be associated with the losing side but the reality in life is that we don't always get everything we desire. The Orthodox Jewish community overwhelmingly voted for President Trump. There was considerable disappointment in many of our circles when he did not prevail at the ballot box. I have heard many voices in our community of despair as if somehow our republic has entered a death spiral with no hope of redemption. At a moment like this, I recall the story of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who at the throes of the destruction of our Second Temple in Jerusalem, had a climactic meeting with the Roman general Vespasian. During the meeting, Vespasian was informed about the Roman Emperor's death and the authorities in Rome nominated him to become the new emperor. Vespasian was impressed with Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai and asked him if there was anything that he can do for him. The Rabbi responded with three seemingly unimportant requests to which Vespasian agreed to. For about two thousand years, a nagging question has been why didn't the Rabbi ask the new emperor to call off the siege of Jerusalem and spare the Temple ?? I once heard a powerful insight from Rabbi Yisroel Reisman to this question. The Rabbi was teaching us a powerful lesson that is hard to internalize. He was teaching us how to lose with dignity. Rabbi Yochanan realized that Jerusalem was already doomed to its fate, and there was no way to reverse that catastrophic event. He also felt it was imperative at that moment to be pragmatic and gracious in defeat. My favorite part of NFL games is what occurs immediately after the game. The losing coach congratulates the winning coach and they usually offer each other warm words of encouragement for a good game played. In my opinion, the post-game ritual should be modeled by all of us in all areas of life. A silver lining to this traumatic season can be if we use this as an inflection point. It is not by looking outwards and pointing fingers at different people or groups but by looking inward and reflecting on what we can all do to engage in healing and reconciliation.

Most Destructive Word in the English Language

I have always been intrigued by the “word of the year.” This last year of 2023, Merriam Webster designated “authentic” as the WOTY (word of ...