Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Importance of Context

One of my teachers, a prominent Orthodox Rabbi, told the following eye-opening story many years ago. He related that someone had approached his son and told him that he heard the Rabbi had said it was permitted according to the Laws of Kashrut to eat french fries at Mcdonald's. The son of my Rabbi replied that it was hard for him to believe that his father, a pious Rabbi, would have erred on such basic information related to Kashrut, and there must be some misunderstanding. But, the other individual retorted, there was no misunderstanding as, a first-hand witness, related this conversation to me."   There was some sleuthing involved in discovering what had occurred. The forum was a "Ask the Rabbi" session, and someone asked if one can eat potato chips in a Mcdonald's. The Rabbi replied that while not advisable due to the concern of Maaris Ayin (false appearance), it was technically kosher as the potato chips were kosher. A British Jew was in the audience and heard that potato chips were kosher. In the lexicon of British English, french fries are referred to as potato chips. The British guest heard that what Americans refer to as French Fries are kosher at Mcdonald's. The news of this unintended halachic ruling spread quickly, and it wasn't easy to douse the flames.  This incident underscores the importance of having appropriate context to understand complicated situations properly. The Daf Yomi group just concluded the tractate of Nedarim this week. The primary topic studied in Nedarim is the issue of an individual making a vow. There is a rule that is taught multiple times in Nedarim, and that is בנדרים הלך אחר לשון בני אדם. The basic understanding of this Talmudic Law is that one must consider the context and location of where and how the individual makes a vow. For example, if someone makes a vow, he will not drink soda; it will have different meanings and applications depending on where the vow was made. For example, in New York, the vow would include all soft drinks, and in Israel, it would only apply to seltzer (as soda refers only to seltzer in Israel).  We live in a world where there are short recordings of people making statements, and these clips get plastered on social media in seconds. People immediately jump to conclusions based on the words uttered by an individual and captured on record by someone with a smartphone. Absent from this footage is any understanding of context or background that would enlighten the viewer for better understanding. Careers have been destroyed, and misunderstood headlines and yellow journalism have ravaged families. The media feasts on these stories and we are vulnerable to buying into a one or two-dimensional understanding of fundamental issues, real people, and real life. Regardless, if one just studied the Tractate of Nedarim or not, it might be worth looking for context the next time you see a piece of sensational news.  Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch.

Monday, January 23, 2023

The end of an era

It is with profound sadness that we mark the passing of Harry Frisch. Although Harry lived until he was 99, and his death is not tragic, it is nonetheless a time of sadness for the Etz Chaim community as it's the end of an era.  For those that are relatively newer to the community, it's important to know that our shul campus on San Jose Blvd came to reality with the generous support and dedication of Harry and Lilo Frisch. Harry told me numerous times that he was committed to the shul being relocated to Mandarin and wanted to see Etz Chaim flourish. He also ensured that we could relocate our synagogue to its new campus (in 1986) without a mortgage. There are not too many synagogues out there that have that privilege! The passing of Harry Frisch reinforces another layer of sadness. Harry escaped the Nazi regime in Austria when he was just a teenager. He was able to survive the horrors of the Holocaust by gaining access to place a ship that was traveling to Israel. Along with other Holocaust survivors in Israel and, subsequently, in the United States, Harry rebuilt his life with faith and optimism. Some have referred to that generation as the "Greatest Generation." They did not perceive themselves as victims but rather focused on building the next chapter in a long Jewish history story. It is a painful truth that this chapter is closing before our very eyes. The youngest Holocaust survivors are in their eighties. The day of no living Holocaust survivors in our midst is rapidly approaching. The world will be very different when no one among the living can look someone in the eye and declare, "I was there!"  With that reality that we are confronted with, what are the most effective ways to perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust survivors and those who perished? There is not one perfect answer to this question. Different people and organizations have suggested a variety of approaches.  One method of education in this important area is something we experienced this week here in Jacksonville. Rabbi Joey Hamaoui and the larger Southern NCSY team organized an effort that took careful planning to bring a most enriching program in Holocaust education. The "Hate End Now" program featured a "Cattle Car." All attendees had an immersive 360-degree experience from within a replica, "Cattle Car." In addition, there was a multimedia presentation within the "Cattle Car." educating us about their personal stories of survivors. We were fortunate to host a Holocaust survivor that was featured in the multimedia presentation, and she came especially for this program. Standing in the “Cattle Car”, I tried to envision an actual experience of men, women, and children crammed together in unsanitary conditions for days. The average transport took about four days. I imagined much sadness, pain, and agony as our brethren were taken to be gassed to death. The tour lasted thirty minutes, and I was relieved to walk out of the “Cattle Car” and back into a warm Florida afternoon. I had mixed feelings at that moment. I was relieved to step out and continue with my day. I was also mindful that a few hours earlier, we buried a 99-year-old legendary Holocaust survivor. I now have an increased responsibility with the number of living Holocaust survivors dwindling. It is now up to us to ensure the "Greatest Generation" is not forgotten. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch.

Friday, January 13, 2023

America discovers prayer

Who says America is a bereft spiritual nation? While there are troubling issues in this country from here to yazoo, there was a moment of crisis that inspired a nation to pray. Last week during a nationally televised game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills, an unprecedented crisis unfolded on the field. Damar Hamilton, a member of the Buffalo Bills, collapsed on the field, and we learned later he went into cardiac arrest. Tens of thousands of fans in the stands who moments before were a raucous crowd became speechless. People watched helplessly as medical officials tried to resuscitate Hamlin on the field.  At that point, a most unusual twist occurred both on and off the field. The players from both teams banded together on the field and began to pray. A Bengals fan held up a hastily made placard bearing the words "Pray for Buffalo #3 Hamlin." Fans from both teams gathered outside the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, to which Mr. Hamlin had been taken, and collectively prayed for the young man. Suddenly prayer—the ancient activity of speaking to God in the belief that he can hear and respond—was everywhere. Top-level coaches and players, former and present, posted appeals to "Pray for Damar." The NFL on Monday night issued a statement advising only that its "thoughts" were with Mr. Hamlin and his family. A day later, the league changed its social-media platforms with those of all 32 professional teams to an image of Mr. Hamlin's No. 3 Bills jersey bearing the words "Pray for Damar." Former quarterback Dan Orlovsky, discussing the game with two panelists on ESPN, did the until-now unthinkable: He bowed his head and actually prayed—with two other commentators bowing their heads in respectful accord. The prayer concluded, and each said, Amen. I wouldn't be surprised if this was the first time ESPN had a live prayer session broadcasted by their sports commentators.  The Talmud teaches that even when a sharp knife is pressed against a person's neck, one should not give up and think that G-d no longer has compassion. The famous verse from Tehilim/Psalms refers to King David praying from ממעמקים or the depths. The reality is that not every prayer gets answered in the manner that we wish. Sometimes for reasons beyond human comprehension, G-d allows pain and suffering to occur. However, the most powerful element of prayer is not that G-d will grant whatever request we have but rather for us to feel that we are not alone. Worse than the actual suffering is to be suffering alone. When one engages in prayer, the person is never alone, for G-d is always with the person. This is what King David refers to as כי אתה עמדי  or "You are with me."  Thousands of years ago, Jonah, the prophet, went to the city of Ninveh and instructed the gentile nation to engage in serious prayer to avoid catastrophe. The people responded in kind and poured their hearts to Almighty G-d and a crisis was averted. Last week in the United States of America, a nation that is fair to say is struggling with morality and Godliness, discovered the power of prayer. Demar Hamilton, who lay on the field lifeless, was discharged from the hospital this week. It remains to be seen if this story is just anecdotal or if this reflects something about the character of this country. Regardless, in an era of one disheartening story after another, a football game played in Cincinnati stood out like a shining city on a hill. 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 ...