Friday, July 21, 2023

Tisha B'av Reminder in Congress

The United States Congress hosted President Isaac Herzog to deliver a special address to the House of Representatives and the Senate in a joint session. I was honored to be able to attend this historic occasion in person. It was a surreal moment to be in the citadel of American political power and a few feet away from the Vice President and the Speaker of the House. Together with most Members of Congress, there were nearly thirty standing ovations for Mr. Herzog. I got goosebumps as he declared, “Am Yisrael Chai,” the Members of Congress exploded in applause. I thought this was an outstanding speech that made many salient points. I was moved by the traditional approach to how he addressed the time of year on the Jewish calendar. This is an excerpt from his speech: In Jewish weddings, a glass is placed on the ground, intentionally stomped on. This ritual evokes the destruction of our temple in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. Only after the glass is broken, can the celebration truly begin. Amidst the most joyous occasion in the lives of two individuals who have come together to build something whole, we recall what was once broken in our nation. Thus, the bitter blends with the sweet. Today, the Hebrew calendar points to the 1st day of the month of Av. In Jewish tradition this is a somber period in which we mourn the loss of our sovereignty. Jewish communities worldwide lament the beginning of our national exile, where we continuously expressed a spiritual connection to our ancestral Holy Land and a longing to return home and regain our independence throughout two millennia. Mr. Herzog underscored the deep connection that Jews have with Zion and Jerusalem. Our tradition teaches us that from the time of the destruction of the Temple (Beis Hamikdash) in Jerusalem, the era of G-d’s Hidden Face (Hester Panim) has intensified. Over the last two millennia, this phase has unfortunately deepened. The stage of Hester Panim has resulted in much confusion, pain, and unthinkable tragedies. As we prepare once again to observe our National Day of Mourning on Tisha B’av, it is worthwhile reflecting on what we are mourning. On a humid July morning at the historic Joint Session of Congress, we once again received a reminder. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, July 14, 2023

Connecting to Jerusalem

Every year, International Quds Day is celebrated on the last Friday of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The event's underlying principle is renewing support for and solidarity with the Palestinians. Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day (translated in English), has become a rallying cry around the world to liberate Palestine from what it calls the illegal Israeli and Zionist occupation. Of course, it is a popular and widely celebrated holiday in Iran, where millions of people march in many cities chanting "Death to Israel." The reality is that Quds Day demonstrations are not limited to Iran or even the Middle East. This year on Quds Day, there were demonstrations in many American cities. As has been the case for several years, event attendance ranged from approximately a dozen to 100 people, including cities such as New York City, Detroit, Seattle, Houston and Sacramento. Protesters at the Fremont Quds Day protest called for an end to Zionism and claimed: "that if Zionism were to cease existing, there would be peace, no racism, and an end to terrorism." That comes from a swanky city in the Bay Area of California, where one is hard pressed to find a home for less than two million! I think of this now as we are in the period leading up to Tisha B'av and are required to reflect upon our connection to Zion and Jerusalem. Are we strong enough in our connection to Jerusalem? There appears to be a gap between where we ought to be as reflected in the Torah and liturgy, and our reality. For example, one of the blessings in the Haftorah (translated) reads, "Have compassion on Zion as it is the house of our lives." Do we think of Zion as the home of our lives? Shmuel Agnon from Israel received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966 in Stockholm and said the following in his remarks. "As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But I always regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem." One has to have Zion and Jerusalem as top of mind to utter such words. Our liturgy in the daily Shemonei Esrei prayer has multiple blessings that reflect the Jewish soul yearning for the complete redemption of Zion! The Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B'av are important to reinforce our inner connection to Zion and Jerusalem. Let us not squander the moment. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, July 7, 2023

Freedom

Joey Chestnut has done it again! I am not sure how you spent your Fourth of July, but they celebrated it on Coney Island in Brooklyn with the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. In a contest as to who can eat the most hot dogs (with buns) in ten minutes, Chestnut won his 16th contest by consuming 62 hot dogs in ten minutes. This dubious achievement secured his record-setting 16th Mustard Belt. I wondered why this contest occurred on the Fourth of July until I heard a clip of the announcer who declared "that Chestnut was doing this for Freedom"! This contest demonstrated that the word Freedom has become quite misused and abused. From a Torah perspective, Freedom is not a license to do what one desires but rather the power to choose to live a life of responsibility. The Pesach Seder, the night that the Jewish People celebrate its Freedom, is a night of retelling our humble story of how we transitioned from an enslaved to a free people. We emphasize some of the warts in our past as we declare, "In the beginning, our ancestors worshiped idols'' until Avraham embraced the ways of the Creator. The climax of our journey to Freedom was reached when our ancestors received the Torah from G-d on Mount Sinai. Every year on Shavuos, we celebrate this Freedom by studying Torah more. As the Rabbis teach in Pirkei Avos, "A truly free person is someone who is immersed in Torah." Judaism puts a premium on intensive Torah Study as this exercise enables us to understand what responsibility is and how one can live a life that is truly free. Unfortunately, Western values have taken the sacred value of Freedom and turned it on its head. Day has become night, and night has become day in the name of personal choice. In an era where the lines of rights and responsibilities are increasingly blurred, it is important to remember the true meaning of Freedom. 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 ...