Friday, March 31, 2023

The cost of Internal Strife

The most effective BDS campaign targeting Israel may be unfolding before our very own eyes. The objective of the adversaries of Israel with BDS has had limited success. Still, the current kneecapping of Israel in the realm of security, economy, and diplomacy is going full throttle. In the greatest of sad ironies, this campaign has emerged internally from a growing number of Israeli Jews. Fueled by the dissatisfaction with the proposed judicial reform by the majority of elected representatives in the Israeli Knesset, this opposition has morphed into a force that is undermining the foundations on which Israel rests.  To be clear, I am not arguing in favor of judicial reforms. I am observing that there have already been consequences that have been harmful to Israel, and who knows how far this can unravel. Recently, a political opponent of the Israeli Prime Minister called upon the allies of Israel to boycott the elected leader of Israel. The PM of Israel visited the UK in London, and upon his arrival at 10 Downing was heckled by Israelis, declaring, "everyone knows that Bibi is a criminal!"  Some hi-tech companies have chosen to take their funds and assets out of Israel and relocate to countries that include Spain and Portugal. A few centuries after Jews were burned to death for not abandoning their faith and accepting Christianity, some Jews are choosing to return there because they do not like the judicial reform proposals in Israel. Most damaging is the refusal of many reservists in the IDF to serve. In normal circumstances, this would be treated as insubordination, but now some are reacting as if these soldiers are heroes for threatening not to serve. Israel's neighborhood has enemies that wish to destroy the Jewish State regardless of how judges are nominated. On the diplomatic stage, the leadership has been upbraided by its allies. Consider the following. French President Emmanuel Macron told the Israeli PM that Israel risks disconnecting itself from democracy if it pursues the planned judicial reform. Macron apparently had no issues lecturing Bibi, even though he chose this month to bypass French Parliament to force through a highly unpopular bill raising the retirement age in France. The UN has weighed in and declared that the reforms would drastically undermine the rule of law in Israel. This statement was especially rich coming from the UN Human Rights Council, which has autocratic and repressive regimes among its ranks. Who can blame the world for such a reaction when a growing number of Israelis publicly declare for the world to hear that Israel is turning into a dictatorship?  As Pesach is celebrated this week, it is worth remembering one of the main lessons of this season. An individual could not bring the Pesach offering. It must be brought as a group. Therefore, one had to seek out other people and connect with the group in order to celebrate Pesach. The larger idea is that we as a people must realize that despite our differences, we are one people and our similarities outweigh our differences. Our adversaries, historically and today, make no distinction as to which party one vote for or what one feels about the Israeli Supreme Court. There was a heartwarming anecdote that gives me some hope. The protestors opposing the reforms arrived in Bnei Brak, a predominantly Orthodox city, to demonstrate and challenge the residents on this contentious issue. What happened next, however, nobody expected.  The city's Orthodox Jews greeted the demonstrators with drinks and warm cholent, Jewish music was played, people danced, and the demonstrators' reacted positively to the overtures. It was the first time for many of those present that they met people who opposed their own lifestyle. Orthodox and progressives finally spoke to one another. It just took a bowl of cholent and some music to break down the barriers.  As we are on the cusp of Pesach, it may be worthwhile to recall the heartwarming story that occurred in Bnei Brak. The alternative path of division and discord will yield a price that will be unbearably painful to bear. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, March 24, 2023

Will You Answer the Haggadah?

We begin this week not only with 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 evident from the text that G-d 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 a heavenly voice emanates from Mount Sinai daily and exhorts the Jewish people to repentance. He questions this by asking why we can’t hear this voice 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 spiritual energy being released in the world daily. Some of us make a choice to capitalize on these sparks and internalize them into our souls. This enables us to embark on a journey of 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. Unfortunately, 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. These souls lie dormant and become atrophied and dehydrated. In life a person needs to feel as if they are being filled with purpose. Otherwise, they will feel the need to fill that void in unhelpful and negative ways. There is a powerful phrase in our Shabbos liturgy mentioned, and that is שבענו מטובך.  This is translated as “satisfy us from your goodness”. Judaism is enriching as it allows a person to become filled with holiness and Godliness in an otherwise mundane world. An individual that can utilize these opportunities to connect will be satisfaction and purpose in life. The reason we pray for  שבענו מטובך is we realize the stakes if one does not satisfy ourselves with the goodness of our faith.  We continue to be presented with opportunities to fill our souls with enriching faith. Moshe heard that call over three thousand years ago. That call continues to reach us in our daily lives. So we have to ask ourselves the hard question of how we are answering that call. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, March 17, 2023

A New Season Has Arrived

The Pesach season begins to go into high gear with the arrival of Rosh Chodesh Nissan. This date does not merely signal the arrival of the month that Pesach finds itself in or that Pesach is two weeks away. Rosh Chodesh Nissan is significant in its own right. In fact, the Haggadah entertains a possibility that the Mitzvah of retelling the story of the Exodus should take place not on Pesach but two weeks earlier on Rosh Chodesh Nissan. What would be the rationale for observing the core Mitzvah of Pesach two weeks before the Yom Tov begins? Is there any other Yom Tov with the core Mitzvahs observed two weeks before it starts? The basis for this conversation is our tradition's appreciation for the month of Nissan. The Mishkan was inaugurated in the desert on the first of Nissan. The date was not a coincidence in scheduling. The purpose of the Mishkan was for the Jewish People to have a central house of worship in which they could connect to God’s presence. According to Rashi, the mandate to construct the Mishkan was immediately after Yom Kippur in the aftermath of the debacle of the Golden Calf. Over 40 days, Moshe engaged in intense prayer, and on the tenth of Tishrei, G-d responded with the words, I have forgiven. The following morning, the campaign to construct the Mishkan began. The purpose of this campaign was not only to build a structure but also to restore the Divine Presence in the Jewish Community. The construction was completed in the month of Kislev, but the Mishkan was only inaugurated on the first of Nissan. This date was not chosen by accident but rather carefully selected. The Rabbis have taught that different dates have not only different meanings but also have various spiritual manifestations in this world. As the Torah states about the First of Nissan, This Month is the First of All Months for You. The First of Nissan represents this powerful spiritual manifestation in this world where the Jewish People become a Nation. This date is so auspicious because it ushers the first stages of freedom to a beleaguered nation that was subjugated to foreign rule. As we learn throughout the Haggadah, authentic freedom is the ability to live with meaning and purpose and not be subject to the will of other entities. Since the First of Nissan was such a turning point in our history, it is no wonder that the Haggadah entertains the notion that we should begin retelling the story of the Exodus on the First of Nissan. Although the debate concludes that we start this Mitzvah on Pesach night and not on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the process of preparing for this season begins as the month of Nissan begins. It is time to contemplate the question of what freedom means to you. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, March 10, 2023

Building a Foundation

No donation is too big, and no donation is too small. Every organization that needs to fundraise to operate has lived by this statement in one way or another. With some donors, the message needs to be that we appreciate every donation, no matter how small. With other donors, the message needs to be that we need more significant gifts to sustain and fuel the organization's success.  With that in mind, the beginning of our Parsha teaching us about the obligation to contribute to Machtzis Hashekel/ Half Shekel is quite bizarre. The Torah states that a wealthy person may not increase his contribution, and the poor may not ask for a scholarship. This defies any conventional fundraising that seeks to maximize donations from the affluent and will give the folks with limited means a break. (There was an additional reason for contributing a half shekel as that would indicate the population's size, which might explain the half shekel. Nonetheless, there might be another way to conduct a census without everyone contributing a half shekel!) It's instructive to note that the contributions of the silver half-shekel coins were applied to the making of the sockets or אדנים. The sockets had two openings in which the planks or קרשים were placed. These sockets were essentially functioning as the foundation of the Mishkan as it was literally upholding the Mishkan. There is a profound lesson on community building that can be learned from the lesson of the Half Shekel contributions. When it comes to any area of Jewish communal life, one should contribute according to their means. However, when laying down a foundation for the community, all must be equal participants. If only the more affluent people contribute, then those with more limited means will not be as invested. Everyone needs to have "skin in the game". The Torah teaches that giving and sharing our financial resources with a worthy cause is an opportunity for the donor as he has the ability to have the mitzvah of helping others. As the Talmud teaches, G-d could have easily provided for all the needy directly. He created this paradigm of donors and recipients for the donor to have the opportunity to give. This applies in all areas of Tzedaka but especially when creating a foundation for the community. Times may have changed but the lesson of the half-shekel is more pertinent than ever. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, March 3, 2023

Why is this happening to me?

Why me? Why, G-d, is this happening to me? These words are rarely, if ever, uttered when something amazing happens to an individual! For example, if someone gets a great promotion at work with an increased salary or gets married to a most special person, are these words uttered?  The expression of "Why me?" or "Why is this happening to me" are reserved for what we perceive as cruel fate. Why do I have to deal with this particular hardship or painful experience? There are macro events on the global stage and micro events in our daily lives that cause undue stress. It is precisely at these moments that we may ponder the unfairness of our fate in life. Can we be honest with ourselves and recall if we had similar thoughts of "Why, me" during a truly wonderful moment in our lives? Perhaps subconsciously, I think we expect perfection in virtually all areas of life. When we receive blessings and good fortune, we attribute that to our hard work or exceptional talent. When things do not unfold that way, we are disappointed with G-d and others for letting us down. The disappointment leads to us living an existence devoid of happiness and joy. So many of us barely exist as we lament the terrible fortune and raw luck that life has thrown our way.  The month of Adar and the Purim story can teach us much about attaining Simcha (happiness) in difficult situations. Our rabbis have taught us to increase our joy once Adar is here. So what is it about Adar and Purim that should trigger happy thoughts? After all, other miraculous events occurred in different months that don't call for happiness.  The story of Purim is unique in the biblical context as it's the only book that doesn't mention the name of G-d. There was immense darkness during that era as a genocidal plot to exterminate Jews was hatched and nearly carried out. The heroes of the story, Mordechai and Esther, rose to the occasion at the right moments and demonstrated faith and bravery on behalf of their people. The Megila records that after the evil decree was averted, the Jews of that era experienced Simcha. On a superficial level, it means that they were happy and relieved that they lived to tell the tale. On a deeper level, the Simcha they experienced was internalizing this idea that the blessings and challenges in our lives are part of our life's journey and greater destiny. There were various critical moments in the Purim story that Mordechai and Esther could have easily stated, “Why, me.” Truly great people do not ask those questions, nor does it deprive them of simcha during difficult times. Especially in dark moments, we must realize that we are not the victims of cruel fate. If there is even one lesson to learn from the Purim story, I suggest that we remember that true Simcha does not mean having a pain-free life. True Simcha is a recognition that everything that occurs, good and otherwise, is there as tools to ultimately enhance our journey in life and bring us closer to our tikkun and destiny. 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 ...