Thursday, December 28, 2023

Beautiful and Painful

As there seems to be a never ending supply of news from the war in Israel, many important headlines tend to be overlooked. One headline this week that I think should have gotten a lot more attention was from the Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. He reportedly said that Israel currently finds itself on a seven-front war! Let that digest. It's rare for a country to fight a two or even a three-front war. A seven-front war has been unimaginable. Gallant told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, "We are in a multi-front war. We are being attacked from seven different arenas: Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Judea and Samaria, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran." He later added that Israel has responded to six of these areas. Another news item about the war that is not at the top of the news cycle but nonetheless worthy of attention is the economic toll. Every day costs the Israeli economy in the area of 300 million dollars. Let that number sink in. The generosity of North American Jews has been remarkable. In just the first month of the war, it raised a billion dollars. The Jewish Federations of North America is responsible for $602 million; the rest came from various groups and friendship associations. I am not aware of any campaign in the Jewish world raising one billion dollars in a single month. It sounds beyond incredible. The reality is that money would last about three days in this war. At the end of this week, we will be entering the thirteenth week of the war and Israeli officials are preparing the public for several months ahead. Of course, the highest cost Israel continues to pay is in human life. Nearly every day brings reports of deaths to IDF soldiers. I am struck by so many photos of the fallen. Their faces project optimism, happiness, and strength. They paid the ultimate price so the Jewish People can continue to live in its embattled ancestral home. Amidst all the mind-numbing pieces on our news feed, an anecdote stood out to me as both exceptionally painful and exceptionally beautiful simultaneously. Several days ago, the heartbreaking news broke that Yotam Haim was among three hostages mistaken for terrorists and accidentally killed by the IDF in Gaza earlier this month. Iris Haim, the mother of Yotam addressed the soldiers of the unit that mistakenly killed her son. She said, "I wanted to tell you that I love you very much, that I hug you here from afar, and I know that what happened is not your fault at all. I ask you to take care of yourself." She added, "the soldiers are doing the best thing in the world that can help us, as the people of Israel. We all need you healthy". This war has brought forward tremendous amounts of both pain and brotherhood. Our People's faith has been tested for thousands of years and again in our times. As 2023 comes to a close, we pray for better headlines in 2024. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, December 22, 2023

Praying at Night

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled on a solidarity mission to Israel. My goal was to bring supplies and strength from America. What struck me most was that while the supplies were in desperate need, the strength was not. The Israeli people have bonded together in unity and faith in an incredible way. Israelis know they are living in dangerous times, but they also know deep in their core with unwavering certainty that their cause is just, and they will ultimately prevail with God's help. As you walk around the country, despite the heavy toll of war, there is an overall sense of conviction. Therefore, in an ironic twist, I left my support mission drawing from their strength rather than the other way around. What I am particularly blown away by is that usually, in dark times, people experience crises of faith; they wonder where God is and how to connect to Him when we feel so physically and emotionally battered. And yet, it seems that those of us in the Diaspora on the proverbial "sidelines" are experiencing this rather than the "in the game." Why is this? In this week's Torah portion, our forefather Yaakov prepares to go down to Egypt. He never wanted to go down to Egypt and was somewhat frightened by the dangers of leaving the Holy Land of Israel. A strange detail is included in the ensuing episode where G-d speaks to Yaakov as he is on the journey to Egypt to offer him support and words of strength. The Torah deems it important to mention that this conversation happened "B'maarat Ha'lailah" (vision by night). Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (the Meshech Chachmah), a fascinating Torah commentator from the pre-war era, explains that the specific mention that this was happening at night was meant to be an allusion to dark times. Yaakov, in general, often connects to God in the night, such as when he wrestles with an angel and has the dream of the heavenly ladder. Moreover, our sages tell us that Yaakov is the forefather who implemented Maariv, our nighttime service of praying to God. Therefore, in other words, the Mescech Chachma explains that what we are talking about here is not so much a "time" but a state of mind or even events. The night represents darkness, which further signifies when we don't see the hand of God so readily. When Yaakov was going to Egypt, Hashem told him that He would be with him even in the dark times. Furthermore, it is critical to note that Rashi points out that the reason God came to Yaakov at this juncture was because Yaakov was feeling "Meitzar" (constricted). Although this term denotes stress and anxiety, it also literally translates as "constricted" which is a direct allusion to where Yaakov was headed (Mitzraim). It is not a coincidence that Mitzraim comes from the word constriction, as it was a dark place devoid of G-d. Right now, we feel as if we are in a dark place on a national level. But we must remember that in every generation, there is a "Mitzraim," and despite those hard times, God is with us just as he was with our forefather Yaakov who was feeling "confined." When he was 15 and a prisoner at Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel watched as three Jewish scholars put God on trial for indifference to the suffering of his people — and found him guilty. After the verdict, Wiesel said, there was silence, and then the participants all sat down to evening prayers. As we find ourselves in unprecedented times with a whole host of challenges, it is once again time to pray at night. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, December 15, 2023

Appreciating Everyday Miracles

One of the primary themes of Chanukah is revisiting the meaning of a miracle. The conventional understanding of a miracle is an extraordinary supernatural event that upends the natural order of the world, akin to the splitting of the sea or the plagues in Egypt. Our Rabbis have taught that our daily lives are filled with miracles, and we are the recipients of phenomenal and incredible miracles. We witness babies born, apples growing, and many other fantastic events that regularly occur. Somehow, because of the frequency of these occurrences, we become desensitized to these miracles and lose appreciation to G-d for orchestrating all these amazing realities. Only when we are deprived of these blessings do we begin to fully appreciate how special and fortunate we have been to be the worthy recipient of these miracles. I think of this during Chanukah as a response to the famous question posed by Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) as to why we celebrate Chanukah for eight nights. After all, if the Jews had enough oil for the first night, the fact that the fire remained burning for an additional seven nights should be the reason to celebrate Chanukah for seven nights! Why, then, do we celebrate Chanukah for eight nights? I want to suggest that with our expanded understanding of miracles, it would be worthy to celebrate all the miracles in life, including the hidden miracles. That means being attentive to all aspects of the Chanukah story and not just that oil burned for an additional eight nights. As we gathered around our Menora for the last eight nights, we celebrated not only the famous historical miracles that our people experienced centuries ago. It was also a celebration of the hidden miracles in our lives. As Chanukah comes to an end, let us recommit to being attentive to noticing the hidden miracles in our everyday life and give proper thanks to the Al-Mighty! Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, December 8, 2023

Ivy League Heads Strike Out

Just when we think we have seen everything, we get thrown a new curveball. I don't think it was news to anyone that college campuses, especially Ivy League campuses, were hostile to Jewish students. That being said, watching the congressional testimony of the leadership from premier universities was jarring and painful. The complete abdication of moral leadership was shocking. When asked repeatedly by a member of Congress if calling for the genocide and mass violence of the Jewish People would violate the university code of conduct, the university heads equivocated and couldn't outright declare that it would violate the code of conduct. One could only imagine, if the calls for genocide were directed at another minority or ethnic group, what the reaction would be. Part of me thought that perhaps we should not be surprised. In the Parsha we read last week, several dots are unusually placed over a word that indicates a larger message. The context of this verse is Esav's reconciliation with his brother Yaakov. After years of wanting to kill Yaakov, Esav's heart melted, and he embraced him with a kiss. The Hebrew word וישקהו, translated as "and he kissed him," has several dots over the word. Rashi quotes one of the commentaries that these dots indicate a larger message. He writes that it is a "halacha" that Esav hates Yaakov, but at that time, Esav was overwhelmed with compassion and embraced Yaakov. It seems odd that Rashi would choose "halacha" to describe his feelings for Yaakov. After all, the definition of "halacha" is Jewish Law! There doesn't seem to be anything legal about a hateful ideology! Recently, a notable speech given in the U.S. Senate by Senator Schumer shed some light on this issue. He was talking about the sting of the unfair double standard the Jewish People are feeling at this time. Senator Schumer quoted the late Israeli diplomat Abba Ebban by saying, Every time a people gets their statehood, you applaud it. The Nigerians, the Pakistanis, the Zambian, you applaud their getting statehood. There's only one people, when they gain statehood, who you don't applaud, you condemn it — and that is the Jewish people. We Jews are used to that. We have lived with a double standard through the centuries. There were always things the Jews couldn't do… everyone could be a farmer, but not the Jew. Everyone could be a carpenter, but not the Jew. Everyone could move to Moscow, but not the Jew. And everyone can have their own state, but not the Jew. To understand this irrational, hateful ideology, it is helpful to understand the word choice in describing Jew-hatred as a "halacha." Not unlike (but obviously not identical) the laws of physics, the Jew-hatred that exists today is equivalent to a reality that has existed in the world for thousands of years. We have wishfully told ourselves that those days are over and civilization is much more enlightened and less hostile to the Jewish People. Recent events have demonstrated that this "halacha" of Jew-hatred has mutated to unimaginable areas of society. As we gather to light the Chanukah lights this year, let us pray that these lights overpower the darkness. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, December 1, 2023

Solidarity trip to Israel

I found myself surprisingly energized after I returned from my trip to Israel. While I found the mood was somber, there was also a strong feeling of determination, faith, and unity among the embattled Jews in Israel. There is, of course, much pain on so many levels from the horrific attacks on Simchat Torah/ October 7. The crisis is bringing different Jews together as never before. The war is also triggering a reawakening among many Israelis in our shared heritage as Jews and are reconnecting to their roots in a variety of meaningful ways. Here are a few highlights from my trip: Visit with Evacuees: I traveled to visit the evacuees of Shokeda (a town in the Gaza border region) in Neve Ilan, outside of Jerusalem. It was a privilege to meet such wonderful people doing their best to keep it together in difficult times. Many people from our community in Jacksonville contributed to many basic supplies that we brought to the evacuees from Shokeda. As the children from Shokeda last went to school several weeks ago, a temporary school has been set up on the campus of Yad Vashem. We also brought some volumes of Talmud for the students as they are doing their best not to interrupt their studies. Visit to IDF Base: I traveled to an IDF near the Lebanon border. The army is on high alert there as there have been near-daily crossfire exchanges with Hezbollah. We visited Kibbutz Yiftah, which has been evacuated of its civilian presence and is now a closed military zone. (My group was allowed in as we had packages to deliver to soldiers.) I brought supplies and gifts from the Jacksonville community. The soldiers were especially touched with the cards written to them by the pre-schoolers from Torah Academy. I had a meaningful conversation (recorded on our social media channels) with one of the IDF reservists, Rabbi Elchanan Lewis. His day job is as a Rabbinic Advisor for Machon Puah (an organization that supports couples struggling with infertility) and a congregational rabbi in Efrat. He elaborated on the high morale, sense of duty, and reawakening of the Jewish spirit in much of Israel. Yarchei Kallah at Mir Yeshiva: I spent a few days studying at my alma mater, Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. I have been privileged to attend a special learning program called the Yarchei Kallah for the last several years. There were over 200 participants who traveled from North America to participate in the Yarchei Kallah. I found that remarkable, considering the country has plunged into war. This year's learning was especially meaningful as we all sensed the critical moments and how Torah Study assists our spiritual battle in what is an essential element of this war. Overall, being in the Land of Israel at this junction point in history was an amazing privilege. Many people expressed their gratitude to me as a representative from our community for coming for this solidarity visit. As I left Israel, I reflected on the close connections the Jewish People have with each other from Jacksonville to Jerusalem. Amy Israel Chai, 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 ...