Friday, November 11, 2022

Thoughts on Shabbos

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

Friday, November 4, 2022

Response to Anti Semitism

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

Friday, October 28, 2022

Spiritual Effect on Climate Change

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

Friday, October 21, 2022

It Never Gets Old

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

Friday, September 23, 2022

Pro Choice in Judaism

One of the basic tenets of Judaism is the concept of free will. This fundamental belief states that no one is preordained for greatness or failure. Instead, it is the individual ability to choose that will determine the consequences that will occur. If a person makes the correct choices, then a certain positive outcome will occur, and similarly, if someone makes destructive choices in life, he bears the consequences of the negative result. This lesson is taught to us in this week's Parsha of Nitzavim. As the Torah states: ראה נתתי לפניך היום את החיים ואת הטוב ואת המות ואת הרע. ובחרת בחיים למען תחיה אתה וזרעך. "See- I have placed the life and the good before you today, and the death/ evil. And you shall choose life to live you and your offspring." Free will does not mean we can choose to do whatever we desire; rather it means we have the power to choose and are responsible for the choices. I think this message is relevant throughout the year but perhaps most compelling before Rosh Hashanah. As our tradition teaches, this is a time when we are judged before G-d and be held accountable for our actions. It may be therefore refreshing for one to know that despite anything that occurred in the past, you are free to choose a new path moving forward. Furthermore, it is quite liberating to know that we get to choose that path and not be resigned to preconceived notions about what you or your life should look like. I fondly recall one of our members who, at the age of 80, decided that he was going to start studying the Talmud despite never having studied it in his life before. He joined our Daf Yomi group and came every morning to study, and never missed a day. By the time he passed away at 84, he had managed to study most of the Talmud. That's because he said the past is gone, but I will choose to enrich my life moving forward with a daily dose of Torah Study. So as we enter a new year, remember it is time to consider your aspirations and goals. It will only be acheived if you choose to pursue it. Otherwise, it will remain in the dustbin of wasted dreams. So perhaps the most important question you might ask yourself on Rosh Hashanah is, am I going to choose to pursue my goals this year?". To paraphrase the sage Hillel, if you won't do it, no one will. And if not now, when?" Have a Great Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, September 9, 2022

Resetting your Perspective

The month of Elul is upon us. This is the final month of the Jewish year. We wind down the year 5782 and look forward to a new year of 5783. Traditionally, in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah, the shofar is blown at the conclusion of the daily morning minyan. Many times this season triggers reactions that are not necessarily positive. From the attitude here, we go again from unusually long services to just not “feeling it,” Elul is frequently greeted with a yawn. So what would be an appropriate perspective to internalize as Elul is here and we are on the cusp of yet another New Year?  Our Rabbis have taught that the acronym of Elul is short for “Ani L’Dodi V’dodi Li,” translated as “I am for my Beloved, and my Beloved is for me”. The source for this is a passage from Song of Songs written by the wise King Solomon. He describes the passionate relationship between a man and woman in love and their intense feelings for one another. The traditional interpretation of this text refers metaphorically to the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people. This is foundational in our understanding of our relationship with G-d and our commitment to Torah, Mitzvahs, and Tradition. After all, why should any reasonable individual, especially one with Western sensitivities, restrict oneself to what they can eat, when they can drive, and who they can marry? Our generation has embraced the mantra of Pro-Choice in every area of life. Shouldn’t personal autonomy be more significant? Why should I base my life upon a document written by some G-d that feels very remote and disconnected from me? King Solomon addresses this by saying, “ I am for my Beloved, and my Beloved is for me.” G-d created us and gave us a special mission in life because He cares and loves for us. The commandments in the Torah are just details when we internalize this notion that we are deeply connected to a loving G-d who wants a relationship with us. The wise person understands that the mitzvos in the Torah are a mitzvos are an opportunity for connection and not just mere restrictions. Throughout the year, we might not have felt incredibly inspired to be as observant as we could or, in general, feel that closeness to the Almighty. Elul is an opportunity to pause and reflect on this fundamental Jewish idea that we have a loving G-d that wants a meaningful relationship. Throughout Elul, when we hear the sound of the shofar, it is a reminder to reassess where we are moving towards self-improvement.  Life is full of opportunities that are often squandered because we lack appreciation for the moment. Elul is a precious gift that should be utilized before it slips away. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, September 2, 2022

Rethinking the Paradigm of Tzedaka

As we approach the High Holidays and once again are in a time of introspection, I believe it is time for reflection on an essential part of Jewish communal life: Tzedaka. Many of us are afflicted with donor fatigue as there seem to be never-ending campaigns soliciting us for our hard-earned dollars. Sometimes we feel the organizations or people asking us for Tzedaka are imperfect and thus not worthy of being recipients of our charitable giving. The times we live in are also unsettling as inflation has risen to record highs not seen in decades. The economy has entered the shaky ground, with Federal Reserve recently ruling out a pause to hikes in interest rates. It would make sense for all the above reasons for someone to be more conservative in their charitable giving this season. From a spiritual perspective, we must remember that if this mitzvah were super easy for everyone to fulfill, there would be minimal reward attached to the endeavor. The larger point is communicated in last week's Parsha with the Mitzvah of Tzedaka. The Torah states,נתון תתן לו ולא ירע לבבך בתתך לו כי בגלל הדבר הזה יברכך ה' אלקיך בכל מעשיך  This is translated as "You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; for because of this thing, the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your work and in all your endeavors." The Talmud interprets it succinctly with the response of Rabbi Akiva to the challenge of why didn't God provide for the needy directly if He loves them! Rabbi Akiva responded that it was to give the donor the privilege of the Mitzvah of Tzedakah!  The insight here is nothing short of stunning! Of course, G-d can provide for all the financial needs of the shuls, day schools, yeshivas, kollelim, etc. But, G-d created this paradigm where organizations and individuals representing them must go to great lengths to solicit funds to give the donor the privilege to contribute. I had this experience this week in which I solicited an individual for Tzedaka, and he responded with a commitment of thousands of dollars. I followed up my meeting with an email thanking him for his generous gift. His response was short, concise, and totally classy. He wrote. "Thank you for the opportunity."   The great lesson here is that we are all but stewards of our financial resources. If we have the opportunity to give some Tzedaka, we should seize the moment and go out of our comfort zone. In a few short weeks, we will stand on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and once again plead with the Almighty for the privilege to merit life. Nothing is guaranteed, and we can't assume we are entitled to anything. We stand before the Al-Mighty and plead for nothing less than the privilege to live another year. Our tradition also teaches us as we declare in the liturgy, ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזירה. This is translated as "Repentance, Prayer, and Charity can overturn an unfavorable decree." We will be given ample opportunities to be charitable in the coming days. Let's remember not to squander the moment.  Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, August 26, 2022

The Essence of Judaism

A question that has vexed people for centuries is what makes the Jewish People unique. Judaism is unlike other religions because you cannot renounce your Jewish faith. In other major religions, if you declare that you no longer believe in the fundamental principles of the faith, you are no longer a member of the faith. On a certain level, that makes sense. If religion is about a set of beliefs and you do not subscribe to those beliefs, you would no longer be a member of that faith group. Judaism provides no such disengagement and exit clause. A Jew can fervently declare that he no longer believes in God or the validity of the Torah and might even want to cancel his affiliation with Judaism. He has no such option. No matter how disengaged or disconnected an individual is from Judaism; he is permanently a Jew. If Judaism is not a classical religion, it cannot be qualified as a nationality as there are Jews from all over the world. The Jewish people have a homeland, but for thousands of years, we were in exile and carried nationalities from Poland to Uzbekistan, and they were both equally Jewish. Judaism cannot be categorized as a race as people from multiple races are part of the Jewish faith. This brings me back to my original question if Judaism cannot be a traditional religion, nationality, or race, what is Judaism, and why has it stirred up so much passion and hatred against its people for centuries? The simple answer to a complex and layered question is found in our weekly Parsha. The Torah states בנים אתם לה' אלהיכם. This is translated as “ You are children to Hashem your G-d”. Rabbi Akiva in Pirkei Avos expounds on this verse as this is why we are beloved to G-d because we are His children. Although any individual in the world, whether Jewish or not, can have a relationship with G-d and even a portion in the World to Come, the Jewish are unique as we are considered children of G-d. Rabbi Akiva continues to explain the reason the Jews are children is unlike any other nation. We accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai. Put simply, by committing to upholding all the Mitzvos and obligations articulated in the Torah there is more opportunity for connection with G-d. As Rabbi Akiva taught us based on this Parsha, Judaism is not unique because of racial superiority but because we accepted a mission to be ambassadors of Godliness and Holiness. The Torah unlocks the unlimited potential of us to be platforms for G-d and His Holiness in this finite and mundane world. However, it’s important to remember that with this greater potential comes greater responsibility. Have a Peaceful Shabbos and Good Rosh Chodesh, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, August 19, 2022

There’s No Place Like Home

The Israeli Ministry of Tourism recently unleashed an aggressive marketing campaign to court tourists back to the Holy Land in the post COVID era. The campaign is touting the sun, sea, and sightseeing of Israel. It doesn't fail to highlight the Mediterranean beaches and the authentic Israeli cuisine to capture the hearts and minds of travelers this summer. It appears to be effective, as the number of tourists rival pre pandemic records. Interestingly enough, our Parsha this week also touts the Land of Israel as a preferred place not only to visit and live but as our place of destiny. It contrasts the qualities of the Land of Israel with the only other country the Jews were familiar with at the time-- Egypt. How Israel and Egypt are compared are contrasted is somewhat peculiar. The Torah states, "For the land, which you will possess it, is not as the land of Egypt, from which you came out, where thou did sow the seed and did water it with thy foot, as a garden of herbs; but the land, whither ye go over to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and drink water as the rain of heaven come down." It's noteworthy the Torah doesn't say that falafel, shawarma, or hotel breakfasts is better in Israel. Out of all the factors to highlight the superiority of Israel, it appears to choose a poor example. Regarding irrigation vs. rainfall, Egypt seems to have a clear advantage over Israel. The Nile was a blessing to the Egyptian economy and agricultural society, as the people constructed canals and irrigation ditches to harness the Nile river's yearly flood and bring water to distant fields. The Nile was constant, and the people did not have to worry about a drought a shortage of crops due to a lack of rain. The people of Israel were not so fortunate as they depended on rainfall. There were years when rain was plentiful, and there were times when rain was scarce. Indeed, a tractate in the Talmud entitled Taanis articulates a series of fasting and prayers in the event of a drought. The farmers in Israel every autumn were racked with anxiety about the pending rainfall and could only fantasize about an irrigation system that was sourced from the Nile. Why does the Torah specifically choose to identify this particular example to highlight the superiority when it appears that Egypt has a clear advantage? The Torah is teaching us a profound lesson about why the Land of Israel is the most conducive place to have a relationship with the Al-Mighty. There are other places where it might be more convenient to live, or there may be more amenities available. However, the most conveniences or amenities (as in the irrigation system in Egypt) does not translate into the most meaningful life. As there are times of drought in Israel, that also results in increased prayer and awareness of G-d. The Land of Israel is the most conducive place to have a relationship with G-d because one is more aware of G-d than any other location. For this reason, the Torah contrasts Israel with the conveniences of another country. It may not have the most amenities. In matters of what counts most-- a place to commune with G-d- there is no place like home. Have a peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, June 17, 2022

Not a Zero Sum Game

“Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.” These words are attributed to George Bernard Shaw. Still, as I reflect on a significant milestone our community achieved this week with the Kollel record-breaking fundraiser, I cannot help but feel immense pride and gratitude. About six years ago, I initiated a serious conversation with the community members about bringing a Kollel to Jacksonville. There was understandably a healthy skepticism among many individuals. The two main concerns communicated to me were, is it really necessary to have a Kollel in Jacksonville? There was also a concern if our community could financially support a new institution considering the scarce financial resources available. Would this not jeopardize the economic future of our local shul and school? I articulated the mission of the Kollel from the outset would be twofold. First, it would be to establish a Makom Torah in our town. Any established city needs to have a buzzing beehive of a Beit Midrash. This platform is fueled by the Kollel Rabbis and scholars who study in the Beit Midrash during the day and night but is open to anyone in the community to drop in with or without a study partner and sink their teeth into the sweet study of Torah. The second element of the Kollel is for it to be a vehicle of outreach to the Greater Jewish Jacksonville Community through the medium of Torah Education. The amazing and professional Kollel staff have achieved this through offering Shabbat Experiences, Women’s Programming, CLE Classes, and much more. Unlike a shul or school with membership or tuition as revenue to depend on, the Kollel exclusively relies on the generosity of donors to sustain its operations. The Jacksonville Kollel has been extremely fortunate to have a dedicated group of partners who have stepped up to support it financially and morally. While the Kollel is grateful to have some out-of-town support, most of the funding comes from local sources. In 2021, the Kollel conducted its first-ever matching fundraiser campaign and raised $72,000. This year, they raised the bar, exceeded the goal of $100,000, and brought in over $108,000 in just over 36 hours. Perhaps even more remarkable is that 362 donors participated in the campaign over 36 hours! The success of this campaign bodes well not only for the Kollel but also for Etz Chaim Synagogue, Torah Academy, and the rest of the Jewish Community. It is a mistake to think of community building as a zero-sum game. A more apt description regarding community building we need to continue to internalize is -- The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, June 10, 2022

My commencement address to Graduates

It is an exciting time of year as the Class of 2022 dons their caps and gowns, graduates from this stage in life, and prepares for the next stage. Students who worked hard and invested so much into reaching this stage have much to be proud of all their efforts. Let's not forget the parents who invested much of their blood, sweat, and tuition dollars so that their children can reach this milestone. It has become a tradition for a notable figure to deliver the commencement as politicians, athletes, and celebrities flock to universities to dispense some with some of their wisdom. I have mused to myself if I had been invited to deliver a commencement address, would I have anything meaningful to share with a group of students ready to transition to the next step in their journey? Here are some of my thoughts: Life of Gratitude: This approach to life cannot be overstated, especially in the post-Covid era. Our society is wholly enmeshed in the throes of entitlement, and unfortunately, Observant Jews are not immune from this malady. From a young age, we are fed a concoction of rights that feed this perception among ourselves that we are entitled to whatever, however, whenever we desire something. If this outcome is not met to its specification, one is usually disappointed and sad. The opposite approach is to live a life of appreciation and gratitude. The latter individual expects nothing and appreciates everything. Judaism teaches us that the first prayer to recite daily is the Modeh Ani. This is a declaration of gratitude that we have been afforded another day in this world to make a difference in the world. The more we express our gratitude to G-d and others, the more we appreciate every day for what it offers, no matter the challenges it brings. Live with Holiness: As one advances with a career, life can quickly turn meaningless by one jumping from earning a paycheck to paying the bills to work to make a paycheck to earn, etc. The weeks at work turn into months, then years, and then one wonders where all the time went. Therefore, making every day count is important by infusing some G-dliness in the day. For example, one can study Torah for a few minutes, pray fervently or commit to engaging in chesed. All these have the marking of inculcating holiness into your day. So my dear graduates, as the saying goes, you only live once! So make the most of each day, and the entire world will benefit from that single choice. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, June 3, 2022

A Holy Experience

As we celebrate the holiday of Shavuos, it is worth reflecting on the significance of this date and its impact on the Jewish People in particular and the world in general. Shavuos is the anniversary that G-d revealed the blueprint for humanity to live a life with the utmost holiness and Godliness on this mundane earth. G-d revealed this blueprint to us in what is known as the Torah. It is hard to overstate how transformative this transmission was to the Jewish People. The Torah unlocks the ability of a mortal being and allows him to live a life of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. The Torah enables the Jew to infuse spirituality and purpose into the most mundane and physical activities. The Torah has empowered the Jew to connect with the Divine even in the world's darkest moments and find that light in an increasingly dark world. In his book Derech Hashem, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (1707-1746) writes, G-d created many spiritual manifestations in this world with His presence. However, one embodiment is more compelling and more intense than any other in this world. This manifestation of Godliness and holiness that one connect is more profound and superior than any other experience. Rabbi Luzatto writes that this manifestation can only be found through Torah Study. That is another explanation of the famous words of the sages, ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם or the Study of Torah is equivalent to them all. I found this interpretation mindblowing and refreshing at the same time. It provides an entirely new and refreshing perspective on the power of Torah study. The conventional understanding of the purpose of Torah Study is to accumulate knowledge. For example, for one to know how to put Tefilin on his arm, he must study and be knowledgeable in the laws of Tefilin. However, there is an entire another dimension that is entirely different and transcendent about Torah Study. It is the ability of a mortal being in this mundane world to have a connection with Godliness and holiness that will touch his soul to the core. For this reason, it is meaningful for our souls to study sections of the Torah that we have studied before, i.e., the weekly Parsha, or to explore areas of the Torah that may have little practical relevance. The truth is the connection to Godliness and holiness our souls connect with during this experience is so profound that it matters little what the topic is or how relevant the Talmudic discourse may be for the participants in the class. אשרינו מה טוב חלקינו Fortunate is our lot in life that we have the gift of Torah! As we celebrate the Yom Tov of Shavuos, let us reflect on this unparalleled opportunity of spiritual experiences that the Torah offers us in the jungle of this mundane world. Have a Peaceful Shabbos and Yom Tov, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, March 11, 2022

A Fast for the Ages

Taanis Esther or the Fast of Esther is the most unusual fast. We have had several fast days that are scheduled on the Jewish calendar for thousands of years. The fast days are essentially an opportunity to commemorate days of tragedy and despair that occurred to our people over the millennia. A primary example is Tisha B’av which we not only fast but also sit on the floor and mourn the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. The same applies to the 17th of Tammuz, 10th of Teves, and Fast of Gedalia. (A notable exception is Yom Kippur where the fasting is not practiced because we are mourning but rather we are working to reach a state of intense spiritual purity). The Fast of Esther seems like a bit of an anomaly. The Purim story is one where the Jewish People were victorious against the evil forces that conspired to unleash genocide against us. It was Mordechai who collaborated with Esther to convince Achashveirosh to reverse the decree and the pending doom was quickly transformed into a great celebration. Why in the world are we fasting before Purim? The Maimonides in the Laws of Megila provides the following insight. מתענין בי"ג באדר - כי בימי מרדכי ואסתר נקהלו ביום י"ג באדר להלחם ולעמוד על נפשם והיו צריכין לבקש רחמים ותחנונים שיעזרם ד' להנקם מאויביהם ומצינו כשהיו ביום מלחמה שהיו מתענין שכן אמרו רז"ל שמרע"ה ביום שנלחם עם עמלק היה מתענה וא"כ בודאי גם בימי מרדכי היו מתענים באותו יום ולכן נהגו כל ישראל להתענות בי"ג באדר ונקרא תענית אסתר כדי לזכור שהש"י רואה ושומע כל איש בעת צרתו כאשר יתענה וישוב אל ד' בכל לבבו כמו שעשה בימים ההם: Because in the days of Mordechai and Esther they gathered on the thirteenth of Adar to fight, stand up for their lives, and had to ask for mercy and supplications that God would help avenge their enemies and we find a precedent that fasting was conducted on the day of the war as the Rabbis taught that Moshe fasted on the day that he fought Amaleik. Surely in the days of Mordechai, the Jews fasted on those days. therefore all of Israel used to fast on the 13th of Adar and it was called Ta'anit Esther to remember God sees and hears every man in his time of trouble when he fasts and returns to God with all his heart as he did in those days. The Rambam is teaching us something nothing short of remarkable. The purpose of the Fast of Esther is to remind us that whenever we find ourselves in a time of distress we should turn our hearts in prayer while fasting to our Father in Heaven. As the world grows darker by the day, the future in almost every area seems more uncertain than ever. For a community of faith, one area that is tried and true is to tap into the advice of Esther and gather in fasting and prayer. I encourage and implore everyone in the community, including those who do not normally fast on the Fast of Esther to seriously consider fasting on this coming Fast of Esther. The fast is scheduled to begin in Jacksonville on Wednesday, March 16 at 6:24 am and concludes at 8:11 pm. It’s traditional to recite Ch. 22 of Tehilim/Psalms as the Talmud states that Esther prayed these passages as she went in to plead for her people. מי שענה למרדכי ואסתר בשושן הבירה הוא יעננו May the One who responded to Mordechai and Esther in Shushan, answer us as well! Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, February 25, 2022

New World Disorder

The world has entered a very dark era and no one knows how this will end. As Russia invaded Ukraine in an offensive and unprovoked attack, this marks the first major war on European soil since World War Two. Despite the worried anticipation leading up to the military attacks, now that the time of peril has arrived, people are in shock and disbelief. Tens of millions of Ukrainians including the thousands of Jews have their lives upended in too many ways to count. Beyond the staggering cost of the lost lives, the ramifications of this conflict are likely to trigger a financial and refugee crisis. There will be far-reaching economic consequences felt here in America. Some people have questioned how such a war in which we witness a return to an authoritarian conquest can occur in the year 2022. The uncomfortable question that we are confronted with is has the world has returned to its pre-World War II state in which the strong take advantage of the weak, and authoritarians are on the march? This disturbing development is just the latest in a string of smashed illusions of the Western world we thought was living in an era of a permanent state of peace and prosperity. On September 11, 2001, we woke to a shattered illusion of the immunity to mass terror and mayhem on American soil. As the years went on and the country tried to rehabilitate itself, it was hit with the financial crisis of 2008. The vaunted financial sector quickly unraveled and the effects were felt well beyond Wall Street. As the country recovered once again, people were feeling giddy about a rising stock market and newfound prosperity. The good times didn’t last for too long. In 2020, the world was hit with COVID, and this time the modern world including the United States realized the vulnerability of its public health infrastructure. A mere two years later the latest bubble has burst. This time with a nuclear power pummeling its way through a weaker neighbor and its menacing presence threatens not just Ukraine but the entire world. (Many have taken notice of the reluctance of Israel to condemn Russia. This is attributed to how beholden Israel is to Russia as it seeks to eliminate terror in Syria and Russia controls the airspace of Syria.) In 20 relatively short years, the great might of the American military, its vaunted economy, and public health infrastructure have sadly unraveled. As the Talmud teaches us, we are living in the days of each day the curse is greater than the previous day. The Talmud cites the verse from the Torah which states בַּבֹּקֶר תֹּאמַר מִי־יִתֵּן עֶרֶב וּבָעֶרֶב תֹּאמַר מִי־יִתֵּן בֹּקֶר. This translates as “in the morning one will say what will the evening bring and in the evening one will say what will the morning bring”. As the Talmud states in these uncertain times, it’s becoming more clear by the second that, we have no one but to rely on other than our Father in Heaven. Let us engage in serious reflection and prayer to the עושה שלום במרומיו or the One who makes peace above to usher in an era of permanent peace for the weary who are beleaguered with uncertainty. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, February 18, 2022

A Process with Dignity

Our shul achieved a significant milestone this week with the Town Hall Meeting on the Mechitza Initiative. I was so impressed with the tone and atmosphere during the forum. While there was not one point of view or opinion expressed, everyone was very respectful of each other. There were no personal attacks or criticisms directed to one another. Our shul was able to present a forum to the community that presented a smorgasbord of opinions that were not necessarily aligned in at atmosphere of Derech Eretz and respect. In an era of increased polarization and divisiveness in the Jewish world and in society at large, this is quite uncommon and a credit to our community. Our objective of the evening was to provide a forum for the membership to hear and be heard. I gained a lot of insight from many of the comments and questions that were communicated and will seriously reflect on everything spoken. I also thought it would be helpful to review for everyone to understand the two fundamental values that are guiding this process. The first value is to ensure that our Kehilla can provide a sacred space for Tefila. An important component in ensuring a sanctuary meets the level of sacredness is having a Mechitza that is halachically appropriate. As I mentioned in my remarks, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein the pre-eminent halachic authority from the 20th century writes the purpose of a Mechitza is to minimize frivolity between the genders during prayer. There are other areas of improvement in the realm of reducing frivolity that we must address. I would recommend this process for everyone to engage in soul searching as to what we all can do to reduce frivolity in the Sanctuary during Tefila. The other core value that is driving our process is our commitment to being a warm and inclusive shul. We are an Orthodox Synagogue AND open to all Jews. It is a badge of honor for us to boast a membership that represents the diversity of the Jewish People. It is vital for Etz Chaim to remain the community shul that is open to everyone. It is a false choice for us to be either a shul committed to Halachic observance or a shul that is open and inclusive. Our commitment to both values are guiding the Mechitza committee in all aspects of this process. While I anticipate that the ultimate conclusion of this process is not something that will make 100 percent of people happy, I do sincerely hope that no matter what a person's viewpoint on this complex issue, all will agree that this process was conducted with the utmost integrity. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, February 11, 2022

Disagreeing with Respect

I have been very encouraged by the reaction of the shul membership since the Mechitza initiative was rolled out. I do not mean to suggest I am encouraged in the sense that everyone subscribes to the position that I have articulated on this issue. I recognize that there is a great diversity of viewpoints in the community and some people who I respect greatly have an opinion on this issue that is not necessarily aligned with my position. I am specifically referring to the tenor of the communal conversation on a potentially divisive issue. Just because something has an issue to become potentially divisive does not mean it has to be divisive. The ability of a community to have a level of mutual respect and tolerance towards others with different viewpoints is not always easy. It requires a great deal of listening and reflecting. This is not to suggest that one should seek to adopt the opposing view of someone else. It is essential for someone to accept the opposing viewpoint from a family, friend, or community member as their reality. The Gaon of Vilna writes that the highest form of listening is acceptance. The Gaon clarifies that acceptance does not mean agreement. If a family member or friend expresses a different point of view, it is so important to listen, reflect and accept that this is their position. If you ultimately conclude differently than your friend on an issue, that is fine. The barometer of a successful conversation is in what manner people will listen to each other with respect despite the opposing views of others. It is with this sentiment that I am excitedly anticipating the Town Hall meeting upcoming this week for our membership on the Mechitza initiative. I am not expecting everyone to have a monolithic position on a complex issue. I am also not assuming everyone will align with the position of the Rabbinic leadership of the shul. I am confident that no matter someone feels, the conversation will be conducted with tolerance, mutual respect, and Derech Eretz. In an era of increased polarization and division both in the Jewish world and in society at large, let us become role models in our ability to tackle complex issues with grace. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, February 4, 2022

Start with the WHY

Start with WHY. It’s important to reflect and engage in soul searching as to why we attach importance to various pursuits in life. In our professional lives and workplace, we can fairly easily communicate what we are doing and (if competent) how to perform the tasks. A more complex question is the WHY of the job. Is it merely to get a paycheck or is there some more noble mission that you are pursuing? I think this challenge to find your WHY applies to the purpose of having a shul. Most can easily explain what a shul is or how to pray or learn. That is the easy part. The WHY a community or neighborhood needs a shul requires more reflection. Is it simply to have individuals gather for a minyan and daven together or is there a higher and more noble purpose? If individuals gather for a minyan in a home or elsewhere, does that serve the same purpose as having a communal Beit Haknesset? This week's Parsha of Teruma provides an insight into this conversation. G-d told Moshe to instruct the Jewish People. וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם. This is translated as “You shall make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them”. The mandate to create a central house of worship with the Mishkan followed by the Beit Hamikdash is articulated clearly in the Parsha. In the simplest sense, it's for the Divine presence to manifest itself in this mundane world. Of course, G-d’s presence is everywhere, but one can connect to the Shechina in a place that was consecrated for worship and prayer. There is much distraction and noise and it is not easy to find that escape that provides a means for that connection. The Mishkan and later the Beit Hamikdash offered that opportunity for Man to connect with G-d in the most ideal manner. The Talmud teaches us that in the absence of a Beit Hamikdash, a Beit Haknesset or shul can fill that void. It is far more than a collection of individuals praying. It is a group of individuals transformed into a Kehilla that is seeking to connect with the Divine Presence in a space that has been consecrated to allow for the G-d’s presence to manifest with no parallel. A hallowed space such as a shul should be an area with the respect it deserves. Any sort of frivolity should be minimized or eliminated. It is a privilege for a community to gather in this sacred space to connect with the Almighty. In every consideration as to what direction our shul embraces for the future, it is not sufficient for one to communicate the WHAT and HOW. We must confront the WHY of our shul. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, January 28, 2022

A Time to Remember

The daily news cycle offers an avalanche of news stories that are filled with controversy and anguish. The news media knows that stories that communicate messages of kindness, hope, and optimism won’t boost ratings. The message of every silver lining has a cloud is much more like to be retweeted and gain traction in the social media world and beyond. For this reason, I was astounded at a most remarkable that caught my attention in the news that did not appear to be widely circulated. Ceremonies were held around the world to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day this week on January 27. This date was chosen as it’s the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Bundestag (German Parliament) invited Mickey Levy, the Speaker of the Israeli Knesset to deliver the main address to commemorate the vent. Levy delivered a heartfelt and emotional speech from the podium in the Bundestag. “Here, in this historic building, the house of the German parliament, one can grasp — if only slightly — the ability of human beings to take advantage of democracy to defeat it,” Levy said. “It is a place where humanity stretched the boundaries of evil — a place where the loss of values turned a democratic framework into racist and discriminatory tyranny. That is why it is precisely here, within the walls of this house, which stand as silent stone and steel witnesses, that we are re-learning how fragile democracy is, and are once again reminded of our duty to guard it with all vigilance.” Levy concluded his remarks by reciting the Kaddish from a Siddur that was used by a Bar Mitzvah boy immediately before Kristallnacht. He was visibly emotional as he concluded the Kaddish. The members of the Bundestag rose to give him a standing ovation. I thought it was nothing short of extraordinary that on the very same stage that Hitler stood to call for the completer and utter destruction of all Jews, the Kaddish was being recited by a leader of the modern Jewish State. It reminded me of the words in the Haggadah, שֶׁלֹּא אֶחָד בִּלְבָד עָמַד עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ, אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלוֹתֵנוּ, וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם. The translation is since it is not only one [person or nation] that has stood [against] us to destroy us, but rather in each generation, they stand [against] us to destroy us, but the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hand. It also reminded me about the fragile state of security that we are forced to confront regularly. It wasn’t long ago that we thought we had turned a corner on global antisemitism and the Holocaust was becoming a distant memory. It appears that may be wishful thinking as 2021 was the worse year for antisemitic attacks in a decade, seeing an average of ten incidents a day with the likelihood of many more incidents not being reported, according to an annual review published Monday by the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency. 2021 was “the most antisemitic year in the last decade,” the two organizations said in a joint statement. The average number of antisemitic incidents reported in 2021 was more than ten per day, the report found. Many in our community are asking more frequently if the unthinkable can occur in the United States of America. The Torah emphasizes the importance of Zachor/ Remember in regards to the evils of Amaleik. As many around the world paused to commemorate the Holocaust this week, the need to internalize the notion of Zachor is more relevant than ever. Have a peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, January 21, 2022

Important Message from Rabbi Fisch

The leadership of our shul recently began a process of exploring the viability of adjusting our mechitza to make it more halachically appropriate. Our current mechitza has been in place since the construction of our current building in 1986, so it’s natural to question the logic behind this seemingly controversial decision. Every organization and entity must recognize and understand its mission. Our beloved shul, which I am privileged to lead, is no exception. The Talmud teaches that the purpose of a synagogue is to be a מקדש מעט or a mini Beit Hamikdash. The purpose of the Beit Hamikdash was to have a spiritual oasis where Godliness can manifest itself in this mundane world. The service in the Beit Hamikdash required a level of decorum to the highest degree. For this reason, the Talmud teaches that men and women were in separate areas to avoid frivolity during the sacred times of prayer. As a mini Beit Hamikdash, Orthodox synagogues have been steadfast to this tradition for thousands of years, in an effort to maintain its sacred space. It is an unfortunate misconception to project the mechitza as a way of denigrating women. Nothing could be further from the truth. We respect and revere the women of our community. We also recognize the sacred space necessary for prayer and, in that spirit, there is a need for separate areas for men and women. The reality is that, in the range of halachic allowances, our current mechitza meets the bare minimum of acceptability. For this reason, we are exploring ways of upgrading the mechitza in an effort to fulfill our mission of having an appropriate mini Beit Hamikdash in our community. While this initiative is once again reminding us of how we must balance modernity and tradition, it’s important to remember that our commitment to Halacha has kept us anchored to our tradition. In engaging in this process, it’s important for everyone to know that there is another fundamental value to which we are committed. We pride ourselves on being an open and inclusive shul. In fact, our organizational motto is “a community shul with doors open to everyone.” Our diversity is our strength and, in an era of increased polarization and factionalism, we consider it a badge of honor that our membership consists of individuals with varying degrees of observance. We have been, and are still, committed to ensuring that everyone feels comfortable at Etz Chaim Synagogue. The fundamental values of fidelity to tradition and Halacha, coupled with our commitment to being an open and inclusive synagogue, is the mandate that our mechitza committee seeks to address. It is not mutually exclusive to be a kehilla that has a commitment to a high standard in Halacha and, simultaneously, to be an inclusive shul. I am not naive enough to believe that everyone will be happy with the recommendation of the committee. I am confident that our kehilla has the ability to communicate any disagreements with Derech Eretz and mutual respect. I am confident that our kehilla can be courageous and embrace a rock solid commitment to Halacha and tradition, while remaining the community shul with doors open to everyone. Have a peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, January 14, 2022

Manna in 2022?

The anxiety one can have about earning an adequate salary to pay all the bills can be rather debilitating at times. Inflation in the United States hit its fastest pace in nearly four decades in 2021 as pandemic-related supply and demand imbalances, along with stimulus intended to shore up the economy, pushed prices up at a 7% annual rate. With the cost of living rising dramatically and our paychecks not keeping up with that pace, it continues to weigh on our minds at all hours of the day and night. Yet, with all the efforts that we invest in this area, it’s important to remember there is a G-d that provides for our needs and make enables us to pursue a livelihood. That was the lesson of the manna in this week's Parsha. The Jews in the desert were at their wits when they realized the food they had was dwindling and were likely going to starve to death. Keep in mind, this was before the Amazon Prime trucks were providing deliveries in every neighborhood. One day they woke up and they realized that there was food outside everyone's tent. This was the Manna from heaven. Moshe told the people that this must be remembered for all of the time. If we are not receiving the Manna every morning at our doorstep with the newspaper that's delivered, in what way can it be remembered? Many times we might think if only there were fewer restrictions in Judaism our careers and livelihood might be more lucrative. The lesson of the manna should debunk that notion. Yes, we must not take anything for granted and work hard to yield that elusive paycheck. However, it is because of the grace of G-d that we are empowered to do just that. Compromising on Mitzvos or on our value system is not going to be more rewarding in this area. The next time we have doubts on this issue, it would be worthwhile to remember the lesson of the manna. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, January 7, 2022

Escaping Confinement

The Jewish People evolving from a small family to a proud nation is nearly complete in the narrative of this week's Parsha. The story of the Exodus is recorded in great detail. It is nothing short of remarkable to hear once again about how a few million Jews who were slaves marched out to freedom in broad daylight and their former masters were powerless to stop their journey to liberty. Putting it into a historical context, there were upwards of 650,000 casualties (that’s a conservative estimate) in the Civil War which was primarily fought for the emancipation of slaves. In the Exodus, the former Jewish slaves marched out of the clutches of a mighty superpower without a shot being fired. For this reason, the Exodus occupies such prominence in our lives and is remembered on our calendar with the celebration of Pesach and Sukkos. As important as the Exodus is in the story of the Jewish People, there seems to be disproportionate attention to this particular event. There are so many Mitzvahs connected to the Exodus that are well beyond the observance of Pesach and Sukkos. There is a special Mitzvah to remember all the days of our lives. Doesn't there seem to be a disproportionate focus on this event that occurred 3,300 years ago? There are a variety of perspectives on this pointed question and I would like to share the perspective of the Nesivos Shalom. He writes that it is imperative to not just merely view the Exodus as a one-time event but rather as a struggle that we are regularly experiencing. He notes that the word מצרים or Egypt is associated with the word מצר or confinement. All of us are confronted with challenges that feel as מצר or confinement in areas such as health, family spirituality. No one has immunity from any obstacles or difficulties. At these moments it is not unusual to have a crisis of faith and wonder when G-d will come through for us to deliver some relief. It is precisely for that reason that there is such a strong emphasis on the Exodus. It is for that reason that we are regularly reminding ourselves about salvation when all seemed bleak. As the Torah states in Devarim (6:23) וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם or He took us out of there. We may never have been to the geographical territory named Egypt nor do we have any plans to get there but that matters little. The most important element to remember is that no matter what place of confinement a person may find themselves in, we believe in the Al-Mighty that continually delivers redemption in any place and at any time. That message of hope is something we ought to reflect on the next time we observe any of the mItzvahs connected to the Exodus. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

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 ...