Thursday, May 25, 2023

Thoughts on Shavuos

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 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 can connect in this experience is more profound and superior than any different 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, to know how to put Tefilin on his arm, he must study and be knowledgeable in the laws of Tefilin. However, there is another dimension that is entirely different and transcendent about Torah Study. It is the ability of a mortal being in this mundane world to connect 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 for spiritual experiences that the Torah offers us in the jungle of this mundane world. Have a Great Yom Tov, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, May 19, 2023

A Treasured Book

A 1,100-year-old Tanach, one of the world's oldest surviving biblical manuscripts, sold for $38 million in New York on Wednesday, becoming among the most expensive books ever bought. The manuscript is the world's oldest nearly complete copy of the Hebrew Bible. It was handwritten roughly 1,000 years ago on 792 pages of sheepskin, includes all 24 books of the Bible, and is missing only about eight pages. The Codex Sassoon, a leather-bound, handwritten parchment volume containing a nearly complete Hebrew Bible, was purchased by former US Ambassador to Romania Alfred H. Moses on behalf of the American Friends of ANU and donated to the ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, where it will join the collection. Sotheby's Judaica specialist Sharon Liberman Mintz said the $38 million price tag "reflects the profound power, influence, and significance of the Hebrew Bible, which is an indispensable pillar of humanity." If you are wondering why the buyer paid a handsome sum of $38 million for the Tanach, please listen to his words. "The Hebrew Bible is the most influential book in History and constitutes the bedrock of Western civilization. I rejoice in knowing it belongs to the Jewish people," Moses said. "It was my mission, realizing the historic significance of Codex Sassoon, to see that it resides in a place with global access to all people." As we approach Shavuos, the anniversary of the Jewish People receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, reflecting on this awesome event is worthwhile. The impact the Torah had on civilization is far beyond the Jewish People. When our ancestors embraced their mission to the Kingdom of Kohanim and a Holy People, it had a profound impact on the world. The events at Mt. Sinai were a turning point not only in Jewish History but in World History. The historian Paul Johnson wrote this in his book The History of the Jews. "Certainly, the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. Humanity might have eventually stumbled upon all the Jewish insights. But we cannot be sure. All the great conceptual discoveries of the human intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they had been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so a personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without Jews, it might have been a much emptier place." Jewish Wisdom teaches us about the spiritual connection one can attain through Torah Study. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto writes in Derech Hashem about the topic. He explains that while there are many different opportunities and experiences that one can have to G-d in this world, there is one medium that is more compelling and significant than any other: Torah Study. The more an individual studies Torah, the more he becomes connected to G-d. Society has radically changed since the Tanach sold by Sotheby's was written 1,100 years ago. The printing press invented by Gutenberg in the 15th century and the more recent development of the internet have opened new opportunities for Torah Study. King David wrote that the Torah is complete and perfect, and it is restorative for the soul. I don't think many would argue that our souls could use some restoration. The need is clear and the solution of a more committed approach to Torah Study is here. As we approach Shavuos, we must ask ourselves, "What are we waiting for?" Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, May 12, 2023

Equality for Some and Not All

Liberté. égalité. Fraternité. French for liberty , Equality and fraternity and are the ideals from the French Revolution and enshrined in the French Constitution. These values have been the foundation for everyone living with equal rights in a democratic society. On this side of the pond, the American Constitution, along with the Bill of Rights, were inspired by the lofty words articulated in the Declaration of Independence that that all men are created equal, that their Creator endows them with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. The common perception in these Western democracies is that discrimination is prohibited and equal rights a fundamental right that no one can deny any individual his or her rigths. A closer look at both these democratic systems reveals that this is not the case. For example, In line with France's laws on laïcité (secularism), it is forbidden to wear overt symbols of religion , including the Muslim headscarf – in government buildings, schools, and universities (except for visitors). This is not limited to its Muslim citizens. The ban on wearing religious symbols in public extends to Jews wearing Yarmulkes and Kippahs. The French Education Ministry manual for public schools sends an annual memo reminding teachers that wearing religious symbols in public schools is illegal and urging them to punish non-compliant students. In the French Canadian province of Quebec, the controversial Bill 21 prevents judges, police officers, teachers, and public servants from wearing symbols such as the kippah, turban, or hijab while at work. One may pretend the United States does not suffer from any selective discrimination. That is not necessarily the case. In the United States, discrimination based on religion is protected under Title VII and the Civil Rights Act. It is a protected class that includes race, sex, national origin, age, disability, and genetic information. Other individuals are not so fortunate. For example, anyone that is bald, obese, or belongs to a particular political party is not part of a protected class. Therefore, the anti-discrimination laws do not extend to these individuals. The U.S. government and its courts are very particular about who may be considered a protected class. It's hard to entertain the notion that the basis of the anti-discrimination laws is based upon Derech Eretz and the fundamental belief that everyone is created in the image of G-d. Alas, that is not the case, as there are many people whom it is perfectly legal to discriminate against. One can fairly conclude that the protected classes are less about Derech Eretz to all individuals and more about showing deference and celebrating specific demographics. The modern application of Equality extends to other areas of society as well. For example, to have a company listed on the NASDAQ, one must adhere to the Diversity Rules, which state that U.S. companies have one female director and one director who self-identifies as a racial minority or as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. It's interesting to note that the Nasdaq Diversity Rule does not extend to other groups not in the protected class. Hollywood has followed in the selective discrimination path as starting in 2024, films must meet specific diversity requirements in order to be eligible for the best picture award, which is Hollywood's most sought-after accolade. The new guidelines include requirements like at least one actor from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group being in a significant role, or the story must center on women, LGBTQ people, a racial group, or disabled people. I wonder about the demonstrators in Israel that are protesting against judicial reform about the need to preserve democracy as to which utopian system they are fantasizing about. Israel has its own interesting way with the application of democracy. In 2019, the Israeli Supreme Court banned communities from having gender separated concerts, despite the desire of the attendees to have the cultural event in that fashion. It appears many in Israel fancy the notion of democracy as they do in France with an attempt to impose secular values on others in the name of Equality. The Torah and its standards have been attacked for being inconsistent with the values of Equality. For example, some have criticized the elevated status of a Kohen and a Levi. The standard of a male Kohen receiving the First Aliyah and the male Levi receiving the Second Aliyah is inconsistent with Equality and thus discrimination. There are progressive streams in Judaism that have done away with the traditional system in favor of Equality and therefore, any male or female may receive any aliyah. The Torah recognizes that people do not inherently have rights but rather responsibilities. It is precisely for that reason that a male Kohen gets called up first to the Torah and the male Levi follows him before other males can be called up. The lineup for Aliyahs to the Torah does not suggest that a male Kohen or male Levi is morally superior to others. Rather, it reflects the notion that to their unique destiny and spiritual roadmap, they may have some responsibilities that others may not. In a responsibility-centered society, one has to ask what responsibilities they have to fulfill their unique mission in life. Equality is definitely an important value when applied correctly. For those that champion Equality at all costs and are more than eager to do away with tradition, one should reflect upon the consequences that this path has thrown toward our society. 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 ...