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!

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 ...