Friday, June 28, 2024

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 the year). Authentic was chosen as our society transitions into the AI landscape, and more of us are questioning how authenticity factors into the new age. If the previous honorees are any indication, the word of the year serves as a snapshot of society’s collective consciousness. Each year, the dictionary maker, one of the most trusted sources for understanding the meaning of words, awards this annual distinction based on search volume and other metrics. The word of the year for 2022 was “gaslight” and in 2020, “pandemic” held the top spot. It should be noted that these words chosen for WOTY are only according to Merriam-Webster. Oxford and Dictionary.com have other words chosen as WOTY. This underscores that words can reflect the temperature of a society and communicate its deeper-held beliefs and collective consciousness. Is there one word out there that one can categorize and the most destructive word in English? On the flip side, what is the most constructive word in our vernacular? I would argue the most destructive word is “BUT!” The word but can be used to not only point out negativity but also to negate any positive aspects that have been subscribed to a person, etc. For example, sometimes we hear that person is very kind and sweet BUT… The moment we hear the BUT, we might completely forget any positive attributes and only remember the negative. If we hear about a restaurant the food is good BUT, we tend to focus on the negative. We actually learn this profound lesson in our weekly parsha. The Torah describes the spies returning from the Land of Israel; they initially start describing the positive virtues. They then qualify their initial praise by uttering אפס or BUT.. They went on to talk about the power of the then-occupants of the land and how it would be difficult to defeat the natives. The people eagerly bought this pessimistic narrative, and the rest of it is history. One can reasonably ask, since the spies did not speak of anything that was an outright lie, why are they responsible for the report they delivered? This goes back to the most destructive word… BUT. Once the people heard the word BUT, they were unable to process anything positive about the Land of Israel. In this context, the most constructive word is “AND.” One can say that a person is sweet and kind but has a challenge with something else. That leaves the impression of a balanced perspective, with the positive feedback still remaining true. In our polarized world, we must be more careful than ever to use out language as a source of healing and support and not the opposite. One great way is to contemplate how often we utilize the word “BUT” in our conversation. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, June 21, 2024

What’s your primary identity?

Most people assume multiple identities in their lifetime. There is not necessarily anything inappropriate or contradictory about it. For example, a person may be a son, father, husband, lawyer, pickleball enthusiast, etc. People usually make important decisions and prioritize their time (life's most precious resource) based on how they view their primary identity. Many people struggle with this, especially as they transition throughout their life journey. For example, once a person gets married, he cannot spend as much time with his parents as he now has a new identity as a "husband." The parents or in-laws who tend to be "clingy" struggle with their child's new primary identity. A young husband may feel that when his wife starts paying attention to her new infant, he feels left out of the love triangle. I have been pondering how people rank their "Jewishness" within the list of all their identities. This question really determines what kind of Jewish life one will lead. For some, their being Jewish is near the top or the actual top identity. For others, it may be somewhat secondary or rather a peripheral identity. This is not to suggest that being Jewish is not important to them. It might be important, but against other priorities, it comes in second or third. For example, someone once told me they don't prioritize buying kosher food as they prioritize buying organic food, and they can't afford both kosher and organic, so they have to choose between what's more important to them. Or someone may say I would love to provide my child with a Jewish education, but I cannot afford it. That person may clearly value a Jewish education, but it may not be their top value. Since October 7, many Jews all over have woken up to a new reality. For years, their Jewish identity was somewhat secondary and peripheral and might have caused them to change their work schedule for three days a year. All of a sudden, other people were reminding them of their Jewishness and how important it is to their identity. This was true for thousands of Jewish students in the university. They previously defined themselves in so many ways that being Jewish was near the bottom of the list. Other people, including Hamas sympathizers, were confronting them about their Jewishness that was making them uncomfortable. If they were hated because they were Jewish and their association with Zion and Israel, perhaps they should take a deeper look at what it means to be Jewish. It's hard to be despised because of an identity you do not understand. If there's a silver lining in the post October 7 reality, it's this: thousands of Jews are awakening to reexamine their Jewish identity and roots. If you're witnessing this, I urge you not to be a bystander. It's our collective responsibility to provide nurturing support to our brothers and sisters who are rediscovering themselves. Let's foster an environment of understanding, outreach, and empathy where everyone feels safe to explore and embrace their Jewish identity. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, June 14, 2024

Agudath Israel of Florida Mission to Washington

Shver tsu zayn a Yid — It's hard to be a Jew, said the old Yiddish proverb. Many of us have verbalized this phrase for a long time in one iteration or another, from the Kosher consumer in the grocery store who realizes that record inflation does not even take the skyrocketing prices of kosher groceries into account. It also may be uttered by any one of tens of thousands of Jewish parents who are committed to providing a K-12 Jewish education to their children and realizing that their tuition bill is north of fifty thousand dollars. Since October 7, this phrase has been uttered by countless Jewish university students as they are physically bullied and intimidated by rising Jewish hatred. There is a fascinating insight at the beginning of this week's parsha that helps reframe the issue. The Torah articulates the different roles and responsibilities of the Levites, the spiritual custodians of the Mishkan. There were three primary families from the tribe of Levi, and each had distinct roles assigned. The three Levite families were Kehas, Gershon, and Merari. In describing the role of the family of Gershon, the Torah uses interesting language. The Torah states, זֹ֣את עֲבֹדַ֔ת מִשְׁפְּחֹ֖ת הַגֵּרְשֻׁנִּ֑י לַעֲבֹ֖ד וּלְמַשָּֽׂא. It is translated as, "These are the duties of the Gershonite families as to serve and porterage." Was this a noble service or a mundane task of schlepping (another Yiddish word)? One idea that is offered is that there are two general ways we can embrace our communal responsibilities in particular and obligations as Jews in general. We can view it as part of a higher calling that we have been chosen and have a special destiny in history. Part of having a higher calling comes with more responsibilities. If someone embraces this worldview, they can view their Jewish responsibilities as a privilege and badge of honor. Another view is to view responsibilities in life as a Jew as nothing short of a burden. Such a person will regularly lament about how burdensome or unfair it is to lead a Jewish life. The Torah taught the Gershon family that they can choose how to embrace their communal responsibilities. They can view them as a privilege for which they can be thankful, or as a burden for which they can resent. While we may not belong to the Gershon section of the tribe of Levi, we are regularly asked to choose how we view our approach to Jews. How is it for you? A privilege or a burden? Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, June 7, 2024

De Ja Vu All Over Again

I really dislike writing about difficult and painful topics, but the times we live in keep introducing us to new "lows." In case you missed it, this week in Jacksonville, a business located in the center of the city started flying a Nazi Swastika flag in the middle of broad daylight. The individual who put up the Nazi flag next to a Free Palestine flag claims that he loves people regardless of race or religion. He is merely trying to bring attention to Palestinians being killed in Gaza, which he equates with Jews being killed in the Holocaust. Let that sink in. In 2024 in Jacksonville, Florida, a Nazi Swastika is flying in broad daylight. There is so much to unpack here; knowing where to begin is hard. It's important to note that of course, this is perfectly legal and within his first amendment rights. (Contrast that with modern-day Germany Hate Speech Laws, where someone can go to prison for displaying a Swastika.) The larger point is that, as Yogi Berra once said, it's deja vu all over again. The unholy alliance between Palestinian Nationalism and Nazi ideology is not a new development. The infamous meeting between the Grand Mufti Haj Amin al Husseini met with Hitler in Germany in 1941. The Mufti offered Hitler his "thanks for the sympathy which he had always shown for the Arab and especially Palestinian cause, and to which he had given clear expression in his public speeches. The Arabs were Germany's natural friends because they had the same enemies as Germany, namely the Jews." Hitler replied: “Germany stands in an uncompromising war against Jews. That naturally included active opposition to the Jewish national home in Palestine. Germany would furnish positive and practical aid to the Arabs involved in the same struggle.” The Mufti thanked profusely thanked Hitler. The seeds of that pure and unadulterated hatred have been incubated into the Hamas ideology, and the chickens have come home to roost. On October 7, this ideology of hate was transformed into action and unleashed in a form the world has not seen since the Holocaust. In a sense, it should not have been surprising as this hatred goes back at least to the days of the Mufti and Hitler. This should debunk any notion that the so-called "resistance" is in response to the so-called "occupation" as the Mufti and Hitler formed their axis of evil well before the founding of the modern Jewish State. This week, we once again celebrate Shavuos, the anniversary of the divine transmission of the Torah from G-d to the Jews at Mt. Sinai. The Talmud offers an unusual insight into the name of Sinai. It explains that it is associated with the Hebrew word שנאה, which means hatred. The world's oldest hatred of antisemitism traces its roots back to Sinai when we became hated for accepting the mission of G-d in this world. Indeed, Hitler wrote that "conscience is a Jewish invention," and he would rid the world of that conscience. It was eighty years ago this week that the Allied Soldiers stormed the Beaches of Normandy to defeat the Nazis. Over 73,000 young men from the Greatest Generation made the ultimate sacrifice. Today, the soldiers of the IDF, many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice, are essentially fighting the same war, as the flag waver in Jacksonville has reminded us. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, "Hitler was not wrong when he called conscience a Jewish invention. That is one reason I am a Jew: a world, a nation, a religion that does not have room for Judaism or Jews is a world, a nation, a religion that does not have room for humanity. Have Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, May 24, 2024

Reflections on a Painful Tragedy

In light of a tragedy here in the community that leaves us feeling multiple layers of sadness and anguish, I will attempt to communicate some of my thoughts at this time. Firstly, we must offer unconditional love and support to the beloved Cohen family. It's unfathomable to begin to comprehend their pain, and there is very little that we can materially do to alleviate their anguish. Nonetheless, it is important for us as a community to let them know that they are not alone. The notion of one experiencing a heartbreaking tragedy is all the more raw and painful when one does experience it alone. The words of Tehilim/Psalms 13 resonate for us. King David wrote, עַד־אָנָה ה' תִּשְׁכָּחֵנִי נֶצַח עַד־אָנָה ׀ תַּסְתִּיר אֶת־פָּנֶיךָ מִמֶּנִּי: עַד־אָנָה אָשִׁית עֵצוֹת בְּנַפְשִׁי יָגוֹן בִּלְבָבִי יוֹמָם עַד־אָנָה ׀ יָרוּם אֹיְבִי עָלָי How long, Hashem, will You ignore me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long will I have cares in my mind, grief in my heart all day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? It is not sacrilegious to wonder how long the face of G-d will be concealed from us. This phase of Hester Panim has intensified since October 7 and the subsequent rise of rampant Jew-hatred. Unfortunately, this phase of Hester Panim extends on the personal level to an unspeakable tragedy that befell one of our families. As people of faith, this is acutely challenging as we are once again forced to reconcile how a benevolent G-d can allow such pain and suffering to righteous people. Unfortunately, we have a precedent with a grand celebration marred with tragedy, which is recorded in the Torah. As the Mishkan was being inaugurated after many months of great anticipation, tragedy struck with the unexpected death of Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron the Kohen Gadol. The Torah records Aaron's reaction as "Va'yidom Aaron," translated as Aaron being silent. With the unspoken words of Aaron, he was teaching us that there are times when words do not suffice when they can be unproductive. No words of comfort will assuage the collective pain in our hearts. We may be willing to accept the justice of G-d, but we know as long as we are in this world, we will never fully understand. For us, in the face of overwhelming tragedy, there is only one response for now: silence. As Aaron taught in the face of immense tragedy, silence may be the most profound communication. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, May 17, 2024

Pay Attention to the Dew

It's incredible how much the world can change in a few weeks, let alone a few months. As if October 7th wasn't enough for us to feel surrounded by enemies within our homeland, now, within weeks, as the college campus demonstrations spread like wildfire and even public high schools are allowed "Nakba" days in their halls, many of us feel surrounded by enemies even here in America. Despair and depression, given the current moment, are becoming rampant, made worse by the role America, which formerly seemed like our unconditional friend and ally, is now showing some cracks in the armor. I would like to suggest that while the world around us is not in our control, our internal world remains our domain. It is up to us to recognize the opportunity within our minds and hearts during these terrible times. Being subject to world hatred is not new to us. It is not out of the blue. And yet, because of this, we have a roadmap to help us navigate this complex landscape. Already in the Torah, within the tochacha ("rebuke") that we read in the Torah shortly before Shavuot, we have a deep contrast between the harshness of Hashem's rebuke and a statement of our eternal destiny. Although G-d paints us a picture of what will happen at our worst, He also commits to keeping us always at our best: to be bonded forever with Hashem, with a promise that He will never sever this bond. At the heart of our faith lies a profound divine commitment. It's an unbreakable promise of our eternity, a pledge that no matter how dire the circumstances, no force can succeed in our destruction. This commitment not only assures our eternal bond with Hashem but also presents us with an opportunity for introspection and strengthening of our faith during these challenging times. In the Book of Hoshea (14:4-6), we are told of the following prophecy: Assyria shall not save us, No more will we ride on steeds; Nor ever again will we call Our handiwork our god, Since in You alone orphans find pity!" I will be to Israel like dew; He shall blossom like the lily, He shall strike root like a Lebanon tree. We are reminded by these words that the nations of the world will not be there to save us with their great might (as represented by Assyria). Instead, it will be G-d who will heal us and take us back. How? Interestingly enough, not with imagery of strong horses and swift action. Instead, G-d is likened in this text to dew. The thing about dew is that people don't even realize it is there. It is such a light mist that people may not notice it at first. It is not giant torrents of water or loud cacophonies of rain like thunderstorms. Instead, dew is the gentlest manifestation of water, such that it might rest in tiny beads on your windshield in the morning or cling to your flower petals. And G-d tells us I will be this presence in your life. Even when you don't realize I am there, I am there clinging to you. At the end of the tractate of Sotah, the Mishna states, "We have no one to rely on other than our Father in Heaven." What this means is, that we know who is running the show, and that we should stop caring about the fickleness of the world's nations because they were never there for us to rely on in the first place. There is a difference between man and the Divine. Man is subject to changes in mood akin to the weather- emotions blow in and opinions blow out, and unfortunately, when you are dealing with flesh and blood, so do commitments. With Hashem, this is not so. We can rely on Him, we can believe in His power, and we can recommit our hearts to serving Him and trusting in Him and Him alone. Instead of succumbing to despair, let us view this as a chance to reaffirm our connection to our destiny, our fellow Jews, and our beloved Land of Israel. Our earliest history, as chronicled in our supreme guidebook, the Torah, foretold that the end of days wouldn’t be easy. We were destined to be a nation that dwells alone, yet in this aloneness, we are not truly alone. Stay strong and cultivate your inner world, your garden of faith, your love of your fellow Jew, and the land of our ancestors. Everything else is just noise. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, May 10, 2024

People Love Dead Jews

People Love Dead Jews. Dara Horn authored this book with this provocative title. Society is fascinated with the death of Jews but cares little for living Jews. To Horn, the destruction of world Jewry is a compelling historical narrative, but the current crisis of antisemitism is minimized. In a subsequent interview with The Atlantic, Horn argues that Western society prefers to tell stories about how Jews died rather than how they lived because "it's much easier to mold dead Jews into martyrs and morality tales than it is to coexist with living ones." A chilling example of this theory came to the forefront of the national arena. The President delivered remarks in observance of Yom HaShoah. He said, "'Never again,' simply translated for me, means never forget. Here we are, not 75 years later, but just seven-and-a-half months" since October 7, "and people are already forgetting." On the very same day, the WhiteHouse confirmed that it was withholding key weapons Israel needed to wage war against a genocidal enemy. Let that marinate. Israel is fighting an existential war that it did not ask for against an adversary that unabashedly calls for its destruction. Not to mention that this adversary is still holding over 130 hostages. Israel is told by its "greatest ally" that it will not be granted the weapons in this just cause. How can these actions be reconciled with the rhetoric of remembering October 7? While there can be different theories on disconnect, the words of Dara Horn ring accurate as for too many, Holocaust remembrance means feeling sad for the Jews. However, helping Israel defend itself with capabilities to bolster its defenses makes it equivocate. As a community of faith, we are reminded of the words from the Mishna, עַל מִי לָנוּ לְהִשָּׁעֵן עַל אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם. This is translated as (In the End of Days), upon whom should we rely? Only upon our Father in Heaven. The silver lining to all this upheaval is the benefit of gaining clarity. For years, many have thought the secret to the military strength in Israel was due to its reliance on its "best friend" or commitments that were "ironclad." The auspicious times we find ourselves in are an opportunity to turn again to the true Guardian of Israel, who can deliver us salvation. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, May 3, 2024

Shattered False God

Many false gods have been shattered since October 7. Sometimes, we find ourselves stunned when these false gods disintegrate before our eyes, and sometimes, I wonder if we should even be surprised. The latest false god to hit the dust has been the institutions of higher education, including the universities in the vaunted Ivy League group. The disconnect between its stated purpose and mission and the reality on the ground is vast and pathetic. For example, the Mission Statement of Brown University (one of the eight Ivy League schools)" is to serve the community, the nation, and the world by discovering, communicating, and preserving knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry, and by educating and preparing students to discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation." The reality at Brown University is quite the opposite. In a capitulation to the bullying protests and threats in favor of Hamas, Brown University became the first university to consider divesting from Israel officially. It will convene a vote if it should formally divest from Israel. The decision was celebrated by the Pro Hamas coalition of students and others who hailed this decision as a "great victory." The charged atmosphere has resulted in Jewish students being concerned for their physical safety. There are too many schools to mention that have become a cesspool of hatred and bigotry. (Of course, other schools, especially in Florida, are not kowtowing to the bullying tactics of agitators, but they appear to be the outliers.) There is a widespread custom to study Pirkei Avos, the foundational text of Jewish Ethics, on Shabbos afternoon in the weeks following Pesach. The first Mishna begins with a rather bizarre introduction, stating that Moshe received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted the teachings to Yehoshua, which started the transmission of sacred Jewish belief. The famous sage from the fifteenth century, Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura, wrote this introduction in Pirkei Avos, which is necessary to teach us that our ethics and values emanate from the original transmission of the Torah at Sinai. The Oxford Dictionary defines wisdom "as the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment." The notion of someone acquiring wisdom at any of these institutions of higher education seems remote. It may be an opportune time to re-acquaint ourselves with the ancient wisdom of Pirkei Avos. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, April 19, 2024

Looking at an Extraordinary Night with Multiple Dimensional Lens

With so much noise and distractions, it's easy not to reflect or even quickly forget the extraordinary event of the major Iranian attack on Israel. The attack involved more than 120 ballistic missiles, 170 drones, and more than 30 cruise missiles, with the launches also coming from Iraq and Yemen. I am not sure most of us, including myself, can comprehend the potential damage to lives this attack could have incurred. I saw the photo of the missile that Israel received from the Dead Sea, and it was nothing short of astounding. According to the IDF, the Emad missile had an estimated 1,100-lb warhead. Only the missile's fuel tank was recovered, as the warhead and engine were destroyed during its interception by the long-range Arrow air defense system. The missile's fuel tank remains — 36 feet long and is just 70 percent of the entire projectile. The massive missile, one of 120 ballistic missiles fired at Israel, was found on Sunday morning floating in the Dead Sea. It had flown more than 1,500 kilometers from Iran to Israel in around 12 minutes. Just trying to imagine this missile slamming into a major population center is too horrific to contemplate. The missile defense system that Israel deployed with some help from others far exceeded expectations with over a 99% success rate. My understanding is that there should be a 90% rate of interception. That would mean one could have anticipated about 30 missiles to penetrate Israeli territory and cause catastrophic damages. The stated reason that did not occur is the superiority of the Israel missile defense program. That is, of course, true, and as a community of faith, we understand that this situation is not simply to be understood with a one-dimensional lens. It must be viewed with a multiple-dimensional lens that includes a spiritual lens and understands the hand of God in the background. King David states in Tehilim/Psalms 127, "unless God watches over the city, the watchman keeps vigil in vain." According to Google Trends, the fifth most searched for term among Israelis on the night of the attack was Tehilim. There may have been millions of Jews reaching out to our Father in Heaven at the time of the attack. Anyone who is skeptical of the hand of God might dismiss this as a coincidence. As Pesach approaches and we retell our story again, we can't escape the conclusion in the long game of history: the Guardian of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers. Have a peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, April 12, 2024

Thoughts on the Eclipse

Millions of people dropped everything this week to view the solar eclipse phenomenon. Some even traveled thousands of miles to be in the region where one can view the total eclipse. A total solar eclipse, when the moon totally blocks the sun, results in temporary darkness for up to five minutes in spots along the path of totality. The solar eclipse generated much discussion in Jewish Thought and lore about whether the eclipse may, in fact, be a bad omen for the world. A respected and venerated scholar, no less than the famous Rashi, stated, “I have not heard a reason for this.” If Rashi can profess he is “not in the know” about the connection between an eclipse and being a bad omen for the world, then I am comfortable not being “in the know.” I want to offer an interesting perspective by another famous sage, the Ramban or the Nachmanides. He writes that, unlike the popular perception, “everything is a miracle because nature does not act independent of G-d. What we call nature is nothing more than what we are accustomed to and do not consider it to be a manifestation of G-d’s controlling hand, because generally, He prefers to govern the world in a manner that appears to be normal.” From the marvel of the intricacies of the human eye to a baby being delivered into the world to the sun rising every morning, these are all miracles that we tend not to appreciate because of their frequency. We tend only to notice the miracle when it is lacking, such as when a person is ill or another misfortune occurs. It’s important to reorient ourselves on a regular basis and recognize the amazing miracles that are unfolding in front of us all the time. It’s a tragedy when we become so desensitized that we lose appreciation for all the gifts and blessings in our daily lives. Reorienting ourselves to view life with this perspective should doubly apply during difficult times in the world, as we are experiencing at the moment. As much as the eclipse was incredible to experience, I hope it can also be a gateway for us all to be more cognizant of all the miracles that are bestowed upon us. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, April 5, 2024

Double Standard?

Amid the fog of a brutal war, there was a military attack on aid workers working to bring assistance to civilians. The military mistook these civilians for terrorists, and their lives came to an abrupt end. The attack took place in Afghanistan on August 29, 2022, and the forces that committed this tragic mistake were the United States Military. The targeted victim was 43-year-old Zemari Ahmadi, who died with nine members of his family, including seven children, when a missile from a US Air Force Reaper hit his family and struck his car as he arrived home from work in a residential neighborhood of Kabul. The United States most senior General, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair, initially called the attack a "righteous strike." Later, the General acknowledged the action as a "horrible tragedy of war." Unless I missed it, I don't recall the President ordering fundamental changes in the way its forces allow aid workers to reach innocent civilians trapped in wartime. It seemed to be understood that although tragic, this attack was not a reflection of the moral standing of America or its values. The grace accorded to America after this incident was not offered to Israel after a tragic mistake in which Israel killed seven members of the World Central Kitchen in Gaza. The attention given to this story is nothing short of remarkable. The celebrity chef who runs the aid organization is reportedly putting pressure on Washington to change its policy of support to Israel. It's hard to digest the hypocrisy in watching the President and his most senior advisers publicly upbraid its supposedly greatest ally, Israel, in a strikingly similar incident. The outrage was communicated in a public manner, and America made clear to Israel that unless it fundamentally changes how it fights an existential war against an enemy committed to destruction, it will withhold vital military assistance. What is good for the goose is obviously not good for the gander. In the wars that followed 9/11 in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States killed over 400,000 civilians and displaced over 38 million people. The number of civilians killed in these wars was actually higher than military fighters. (These figures are from a comprehensive report conducted by Brown University.) I don't recall America remotely having the sensitivity to civilian lives in the wars it waged to the sensitivity it demands Israel accord the civilians in Rafah. Meanwhile, the most righteous cause that many have embraced is the "Free Palestine" movement. These enlightened people preach to the world that the root cause of the conflict is the lack of a state to the oppressed Palestinians. One can reasonably ask why the Tibetans and Kurds who have aspirations for a state are not accorded the same seriousness for their legitimate desires of statehood from America and its allies. It's hard to escape the conclusion that all the outrage associated with the plight of the civilians and aid workers in Gaza is for one simple reason. The entity, in this case, embroiled in the conflict is Israel. The selective outrage is once again directed at Israel from countries that would never think that these standards should apply to themselves. If there is a silver lining to the unfolding series of events, it is that we are getting clarity on who our friends are and, more importantly, an opportunity to reflect on our status as Jews in the modern world. It would be a worthwhile exercise of personal reflection to contemplate our people's mission and destiny and the role that the ultimate Guardian of Israel plays in the saga that continues to unfold. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, March 29, 2024

Rest in Peace, Joe!

It’s hard to dismiss the ominous feelings of the end of an era with the passing of Joe Lieberman. The former senator from Connecticut was not only a patriotic American but a stalwart ally of Israel and a proud and observant Jew. As recently as last week, he penned an op-ed in the WSJ to denounce his former colleague who now carries the title of Senate Majority Leader. Lieberman wrote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer last Thursday crossed a political red line that had never before been breached by a leader of his stature and never should be again. That makes his (Schumer) equivocation a particularly troubling and disappointing sign that the Democratic Party is catering to members and voters who are hostile to the Jewish state. Senator Lieberman also carries the distinction of being the only Jew ever nominated to the ticket of a major presidential candidate with his nomination by Al Gore to be his running mate. He famously kept his Shabbos observance while campaigning for the vice presidency. Joe had the unique ability to take what he did very seriously but not himself too seriously. I remember him speaking at an event in Jacksonville a few years ago. He recalled the morning after Al Gore had conceded the race to George W. Bush, which finally brought the 2000 election to a conclusion. Joe was having his morning coffee when his wife Hadassah entered the kitchen and quipped, “Joe, in this house, you will always be vice president.” I think perhaps his greatest legacy was in being a role model to millions of Jewish Americans that you can pursue your highest professional ambitions without needing to compromise on your Judaism. For years, he walked several miles from the Senate to his apartment on Friday nights to avoid violating Shabbos. He also wrote a book about Shabbos called “The Gift of Rest.” The prominent United States Senator summed up his Jewish Identity this way. “My Jewish faith is central to my life. I was raised in a religiously observant family. Given to me by my parents and formed by my rabbis, my faith has provided me with a foundation, an order, and a sense of purpose in my life. It has much to do with the way I strive to navigate in a constructive way though every day, both personally and professionally, in ways that are large and small.” Rest in Peace, Joe! Your legacy and life will not be forgotten. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, March 22, 2024

The Playbook of Mordechai and Esther

As we get ready to celebrate Purim this year, we cannot ignore the difficulties the Jewish People have experienced over the last several months. A saying that comes to mind reminds me of the times we live in. The saying is, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." The baseball sage Yogi Berra put it this way, "it's deja vu all over again." I think of this as we read the the Megila once again. I always found the dialogue between Mordechai and Esther as to how to effectively rescind the decree of the proposal to exterminate the Jews so fascinating. Mordechai pleads with Esther to use her influence with the King to intercede on behalf of the Jews. Esther responds that Mordecai should use his influence with the Jews to gather for prayer and fasting. Ultimately, they followed each other's advice and while Esther lobbied the King for a positive outcome, Mordechai was quarterbacking the spiritual response. Haman and Hamas have similar ideologies in regard to their genocidal aspirations. As with Haman, many in the world would be more than fine if Hamas would achieve their objectives. The anti-Israel rhetoric has been finding itself in more mainstream arenas over the last few months. Many of us have been afraid and shocked about the turn of events. It's essential that we do not succumb to despair but rather be inspired by Esther and Mordechai to do what we can to improve our lot. The Esther approach is to engage in diplomacy. The other side has been very effective in its PR against Israel and the Jewish People. There has been a sad joke about the rediscovered zeal to establish the "two-state solution." Many in Israel refer to the "two states solution" as Michigan and Nevada. That is, the cooling of American support to Israel is in response to the administration's fear of losing those two states in the upcoming presidential election. Especially in today's political climate, it's important to let our elected officials know where we stand on the most important issues to us. The potential military aid on the table for Israel is just a critical example of how diplomacy can make a difference if Israel has what it needs to defeat its neighbor with genocidal ambitions. The Mordecai approach of engagement with a spiritual response cannot be overlooked. Yesterday, on the Fast of Esther, there was a global declaration of the Shema led at the Kotel. The heartfelt prayers that have been offered up by Jews around the globe, especially from people who have been estranged from their faith, have been very inspirational. As we observe Purim this year with a heavy heart, we pray that the One who answered Mordechai and Esther in Shushan may also answer us." Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, March 15, 2024

Synagogues are Complicit

The raging conflict in Gaza has reached local synagogues in North America. Last week, I was attending a cousin's wedding in my hometown of Toronto. I arrived at the shul where the wedding was held, and I initially thought I might be in the wrong place. I saw a few hundred people across the street from the shul waving Palestinian flags. As I reached closer to the area, I heard some epithets describing Israel and the Jewish People. Protesters were carrying banners that displayed the message of "Synagogues are Complicit in Ethnic Cleansing." There were Jewish counter protesters outside that were chanting words of defense for Israel. There was a significant presence of police officers who could contain the aggressive protesters. What might have triggered such an aggressive protest outside a shul? I later learned that the shul was hosting an Expo on Real Estate in Israel. If anyone wanted information on how to purchase a home or apartment in Israel, there was a platform available with information. The notion of Jews buying real estate in their historic homeland was apparently too much for Palestinian sympathizers to stomach. I read that the expo made its way to a shul in Teaneck, NJ, where it was met with combative protesters. The following night, the expo was scheduled to be held at a shul in Brooklyn. There was such an outcry from Palestinian protesters that the New York Police Department considered it a security risk, and the shul felt compelled to cancel the event. Let's try to digest the story. An event in a local shul that was intended to be informational about purchasing real estate in Israel turned into a "security risk." I think it can finally debunk any misconception that the aftermath of October 7 has nothing to do with Jews in our local communities. It underscores the words of King David in Tehilim/Psalms Ch. 83, עַֽל־עַ֭מְּךָ יַעֲרִ֣ימוּ ס֑וֹד וְ֝יִתְיָעֲצ֗וּ עַל־צְפוּנֶֽיךָ׃. This is translated as "they plot craftily against Your people and take counsel against Your treasured ones.” As Purim approaches, we are reminded that the call for a genocidal war against the Jews has happened before. It took Mordechai and Esther to rally and wake up the people for prayer and political intervention to reverse the tide. The expression of מי שענה למרדכי ואסתר הוא יעננו comes to mind. The translation of this passage is, May the One who answered Mordechai and Esther in Shushan answer us as well! Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, March 8, 2024

Balancing Individuality and Community

Striving to maintain a healthy balance between the expression of every individual's creativity and the community’s need for unity is a challenge that we all face. It’s disheartening to feel as though we are all just marching robots to a boring monolithic tune. On the other hand, if everyone just created their own music without paying attention to the conductor of the orchestra, it would be chaotic. The weekly parshiyos that we study at this time of year provide great insight into this vexing issue. G-d instructs Moshe to enlist Betzalel and all the people who were skilled craftsmen for the construction of the mishkan. The Torah states: מִלֵּ֨א אֹתָ֜ם חׇכְמַת־לֵ֗ב לַעֲשׂוֹת֮ כׇּל־מְלֶ֣אכֶת חָרָ֣שׁ ׀ וְחֹשֵׁב֒ וְרֹקֵ֞ם בַּתְּכֵ֣לֶת וּבָֽאַרְגָּמָ֗ן בְּתוֹלַ֧עַת הַשָּׁנִ֛י וּבַשֵּׁ֖שׁ וְאֹרֵ֑ג עֹשֵׂי֙ כׇּל־מְלָאכָ֔ה וְחֹשְׁבֵ֖י מַחֲשָׁבֹֽת׃ “The craftsmen have been endowed with the skill to do any work—of the carver, the designer, the embroiderer in blue, purple, and crimson yarns,and in fine linen, and of the weaver—as workers in all crafts and makers of design.” The carver, designer, and embroider all had a different skill set, and each contributed in their own unique way. If the carver had attempted to do the task of the embroiderer and designer, things would have been a mess. Additionally, all the craftsmen were tasked with channeling their special skills to create a beautiful mosaic called the Mishkan. The Torah repeats criteria again and again with a certain phrase that reflects the overall mission. This phrase was especially communicated at the conclusion of Parshas Pekudei, which describes the process by which the Mishkan was finally erected. The phrase “כאשר צוה ה׳ את משה which is translated as G-d commanded Moshe, provides the necessary context of the license for the artist and craftsman to create their work to inspire Godliness. Yes, please utilize all your skill and ingenuity but it must be in the framework of “as G-d commanded Moshe.” In other words, there are many ways to connect to Hashem and all ways can get to you to the Promised Land , provided it’s within the Halachic and communal framework. Judaism places a great premium on unity but not uniformity. Let’s make our music and art while being mindful of the greater mosaic we are in this world to create. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Part of Something Much Greater

A bedrock value in Judaism is the notion of kehilla or community. On a superficial level, it's hard to find anyone who would disagree with the value placed on the community. The reality is that it's harder to subscribe to the value of community than one might initially think. After all, we all have our own wants and needs, which might not align with those of others. The Israeli Knesset is famous (or infamous) for having 15 political parties sitting in its national legislature. That is, of course, in a country of about 9 million citizens. The amount of political parties reflects the sectarian thread among our people. While there are real differences among us, and I am not advocating uniformity in embracing one worldview on critical issues, nonetheless, the divisiveness comes with a significant cost. The weekly parsha of Ki Sisa provides a compelling thought on the value of community. G-d tells Moshe to instruct the Jews to bring a half shekel so they can be counted appropriately. The number of half shekels would translate into the number of people that were counted. An old question that has been asked in one way or another for thousands of years is why there was a requirement to contribute a half shekel and not simply a shekel. The poignant lesson here is that we all are just one part of Klal Yisroel and need to make space and respect for others. It's of course easier in a sense to splinter off and write others off but that comes at the cost of community building. The half shekel teaches us that we are all part of something far greater than ourselves. We are part of Klal Yisroel, and everyone's contributions are woven into the mosaic of our people. One of the bright spots since the tragedies of this past Simchas Torah is the renewed awareness of the importance of Klal Yisroel. No Jew has not been hurting in one way or another. The subsequent explosion of Jew-hatred around the world has made us realize we all have one shared destiny. From the Jewish university students in Berkeley to the citizens who live in Southern Israel to the Zaka volunteers who engaged in the most difficult and heroic work, we are all just a half shekel and part of something far more significant than each of us can ever accomplish on our own. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, February 23, 2024

The Power to Illuminate

A central feature in synagogues at the most prominent place in front of the Aron Kodesh (holy Ark) around the world is the Ner Tamid. The Ner Tamid, translated as an Eternal Light, first appears in this week's parsha. The Torah begins with the directive for there to be a Ner Tamid in the Mishkan, which was a lamp that was fueled with extra virgin olive oil. The lamp was burning 24/7/365, with there never being a time that the light was not burning. This practice was continued for several centuries in the Beis Hamikdash (Temple) in Jerusalem and synagogues worldwide for thousands of years. One can fairly ask why keeping a Ner Tamid/Eternal Light at the most prominent place in our house of worship was so important. It is also worth noting that the quality of the olive oil required for the Ner Tamid had to be of the utmost purity. In today's terms, we would classify it as not just any olive oil but extra virgin olive oil of the highest caliber. The Jewish People have been compared to זַ֤יִת רַעֲנָן֙ יְפֵ֣ה פְרִי־תֹ֔אַר קָרָ֥א ה שְׁמֵ֑ךְ. This verse from Yermiyahu (Jeremiah) is translated as "G-d called you a verdant olive tree, fair with choice fruit." While it is intended to be complimentary, there is some deeper meaning here. The Nesivis Shalom explains that not only is the liquid of the olive not visible to the person looking at it from the outside, but there is an element to the olive oil that makes it superior. Olive oil, in addition to being tasty in salads, has another important feature: its power to illuminate. Not unlike the liquid embedded in olives, the Jewish People are called upon to illuminate the world. It's important to note that olives can only extract the liquid that will illuminate when they are under pressure or squeezed. Similarly, the Jewish People continue to be under stress and pressure, and that is precisely when we can rise to the occasion and illuminate the world. The last few months have presented Israel and Jews around the world with challenges it has not experienced in decades. We have been squeezed and under pressure in uncomfortable and even painful situations. It is important to remember that we are compared to the olives that are pressed and even crushed, but that results in olive oil extracted that illuminates the world. The next time you enter a shul, it might be worth it to pause and look at the Ner Tamid and reflect on our mission to illuminate the world. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, February 9, 2024

Night followed by Day

Baskin-Robbins was founded in 1945 in Glendale, California by Burton Baskin and Irvine Robbins, ice cream enthusiasts and brothers-in-law, whose passion inspired what is now the world's largest chain of ice cream specialty shops. Baskin Robbins became synonymous with the number 31. The company initially had 31 flavors designed so everyone can have a different flavor every day of the month. What originally started with 31 flavors has grown to over 1400 flavors. A customer at Baskin Robbins will choose between chocolate cherry bark or pink bubblegum flavored ice cream. I mention this trivial data point to contrast this with more serious elements in life. As a faith community, we need to understand that faith is unlike going to the ice cream store. There are situations of pain, tragedy, and suffering that cannot be easily explained. While we remain steadfast in our belief in G-d, our faith is tested these days when Israel and the Jewish People are facing challenges we thought were behind us. We wonder about the suffering of the righteous and the ability for cruelty to become widespread. Israel finds itself in a seemingly impossible situation. If it fights to completely destroy the terrorists, the hostages will be in danger. If it agrees to have the hostages released in a brokered deal, it will likely mean surrendering to terrorists who will undoubtedly attempt to unleash future massacres against Israel. All this is just on the southern front in Gaza. There is an inevitable fatigue that sets in as Israel is even told by its "best friends" that it must accept impossible terms to be on a path to normalization and acceptance in the region. I am writing this not from a geopolitical perspective but from a perspective of faith when everything appears so unfair. To paraphrase the judge and prophet Gideon from the Book of Judges, we say to God at certain moments, "Where is your awesomeness." Based on the order of creation, the Rabbis teach us that night was created before light. As the Torah teaches us, וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר. This is translated as "And it was evening, and then it was morning." In a literal sense, it means that G-d created night and then day. For that reason, Shabbos begins in the evening and then continues to the following day, as night was created before day. On a deeper level, Rabbi Zadok of Lublin taught us that we must experience the bitterness of night before enjoying the radiant light. It would be easier to have light always and never experience the bitter night. This is a time to remember that faith is not like going to an ice cream store, and there are periods of pain and suffering that our people continue to endure in the middle of this long night. As a people of faith, we continue pray and believe that after an extended period of night, we will finally experience the radiant light. As the month of Adar begins, we are once again reminded of the Purim story whose Jews of that generation shared much light; as the Megilla states, לַיְּהוּדִ֕ים הָֽיְתָ֥ה אוֹרָ֖ה. (The Jews experienced the light.) As people of faith, we are regularly reminded that we are not in any ice cream store. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, January 19, 2024

Excruciating Decisions

The current war that Israel is fighting against a cruel and ruthless enemy has so many different layers. Arguably, the most difficult and gut-wrenching element is that there are currently about 130 hostages in the hands of terrorists. People of all ages, including Kfir Bibas, who turned one year old in captivity, remain captive. Understandably, there are growing voices in Israel and beyond to pressure the Israeli government into paying any price to get the hostages released. It is understandable that some would advocate this approach as the thought of family and friends incarcerated by Hamas terrorists in underground tunnels is a thought too difficult to bear. I was, therefore, surprised and intrigued to read about a group that has family members currently held as hostages that are advocating that Israel not strike a deal with Hamas that would release Palestinian terrorists in exchange for their freedom. Tzvika Mor is a parent of Eitan Mor, aged 23, who was taken hostage on October 7. Eitan was working as a security guard at the music festival when Hamas terrorists kidnapped him. Tzvika explained while cradling a photo of Eitan why he opposes freeing Palestinian terrorists jailed in Israel in exchange for his son's release. Tzvika said, "It's not just about my suffering as Eitan's father; it's about the nation as a whole. I can't let my personal hurt take priority over collective interests. Letting terrorists go free endangers Jewish lives. And Eitan wouldn't want that." Indeed, Tzvika relates that he had a conversation with Eitan about what approach to take if he was ever taken as a hostage. Tzvika relates that Eitan had said, 'If I am taken hostage, do not do a prisoner swap to let me free. Tzvika says he is sending a message of collective responsibility" so that Israel "doesn't repeat the error of the Shalit deal." Gilad Shalit, an IDF soldier taken hostage in 2006, was released in a prisoner swap in 2011 in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian terrorists and prisoners held by Israel. It was the most lopsided prisoner swap in Israel's history. At least six Israelis were murdered in the four years following the Shalit swap by terrorists released under the deal. Among those released was Hamas's Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar, the mastermind behind the October 7 massacre. It can be argued that all the people killed and taken hostage on October 7 were the consequences of the Shalit deal. Mor argues that releasing over 6,000 Palestinian terrorists currently incarcerated in Israeli prisons would endanger the lives of seven million Jews currently living in Israel. The controversy around what is an appropriate price for Jews in captivity is, unfortunately, not a new issue. The Mishna in Tractate Gittin states אֵין פּוֹדִין אֶת הַשְּׁבוּיִים יוֹתֵר עַל כְּדֵי דְמֵיהֶן, מִפְּנֵי תִקּוּן הָעוֹלָם. This is translated as The captives are not redeemed for more than their actual value, for the betterment of the world. The rationale behind this difficult passage is that overpaying in attempting to get the captives released will encourage future terrorism and extortion. The latter part of the 13th century was full of persecution for the Jews of Germany, and they lived in constant fear for their property and life. One of the most prominent Rabbis of the generation was Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg. Rabbi Meir, who is also known as the Maharam, who until this day is considered one of the premier halachic authorities in the Ashkenazic world. In 1286, Rabbi Meir was imprisoned in the fortress of Ensisheim and held for ransom. The king knew that the Jews would give away their last mark to redeem their beloved Rabbi, and the sum of 20,000 marks was raised for Rabbi Meir's freedom. Rabbi Meir, however, forbade his friends and followers to pay any ransom for him. In his selflessness, he knew that once ransom was paid for him, every noted Rabbi in Germany would be arrested and held for ransom by the greedy and cruel German rulers of those days. Thus Rabbi Meir preferred to remain in prison and even die there in order to save many others from a similar fate. Rabbi Meir eventually died in prison and his body was kept there for many years. It is beyond my capability to weigh in on this most sensitive and controversial issue. I have asked myself to envision my position if it was one of my children that was a captive, and that was too painful to contemplate. What is most important is to continue sharing love, empathy, and prayers with all those families in this unbearable situation. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, January 12, 2024

Judicial Farce

“I have seen an upside-down world.” This is a quote from a story in the Talmud about a Sage who had a near-death experience and reported that he had witnessed “an upside world.” The last 100 days since the war launched by Hamas against the Jewish State and, in particular, the last few days, have made us feel as if we are living in an upside-down world. When one would think we have seen everything, we watch a judicial charade unfolding at the ICJ (International Court of Justice) in the Hague. South Africa has formally brought charges of genocide against Israel to ICJ. It accuses Israel of mass killings of Palestinians in Gaza. It was very telling in the opening arguments of the South African prosecutor, who referred to the allegations of genocide in the context of the so-called apartheid in Israel for the past 75 years. In other words, the Jewish People are guilty because they merely exist as a state in their ancestral homeland. The notion of South Africa somehow being the guardian of human rights is laughable. Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir was indicted for killing some 200,000 people in Darfur and South Africa. The self-appointed guardian of human rights opposed the indictment. While it is very easy to get discouraged and disheartened about the unfolding event and the sheer chutzpah, I believe this judicial farce has a silver lining. The Talmud teaches us that in the End of Days, the AlMighty will indict the Nations in the World for their cruelty and mistreatment of the Jewish People. As we are getting closer to that era, some nations historically have not interacted much with us and had not had the opportunity to be cruel and antagonistic and are now getting excited to hurt the Jews. Every lopsided vote in the UN that once again damages Israel is being recorded in the heavenly ledger. The trouble that many nations have with the Jewish People predates the existence of a modern Jewish State. As we are in the fourth quarter of history, many countries that did not meet or interact with us are attempting to get their last licks on Jew-hatred. As a people of faith, we believe that the days when the words of Torah, “הַרְנִ֤ינוּ גוֹיִם֙ עַמּ֔וֹ”(translation: Nations, proclaim God’s People), is declared to every corner of the World. Until that time, let’s remember to fasten our seatbelts for the bumpy ride ahead. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, January 5, 2024

True Empathy

I am fortunate to celebrate another birthday, so I wanted to share a reflection. I am unclear about the appropriate etiquette of revealing my age as my birthday approaches. Without revealing my exact age, I will suffice it to say that I am now closer to sixty than thirty! A larger point is that once you reach a certain age that you can buy alcohol, rent a car, or run for president, the exact age is less important than the maturity of the individual. I know some pretty sharp and wise thirty-one-year-olds. I am also, on occasion, disheartened to see the lack of maturity of a seventy-one-year-old. It matters less how many years one has lived on this earth than the life lessons internalized and wisdom the individual absorbed. This important lesson is found in this week's parsha. Our weekly parsha introduces arguably the most extraordinary person ever to live on this earth. I am, of course, referring to Moshe. The life of Moshe began with an immediate crisis as his mother was rightly concerned that her newborn infant would be killed as per Egyptian law. She casts her infant in makeshift raft and puts him in the Nile with a heavy heart. The daughter of Pharoah discovers him as she is in the river and takes him back to the palace. She raised him in the Egyptian palace and cared for him there. The uncanny turn of events had the future leader of the Jewish people growing up in the palace of someone who had a campaign of genocide against the Jews. There are numerous angles and layers to this fascinating story. As Moshe grows up, the Torah states twice, ויגדל משה. This is literally translated as, "and Moshe grew up." The message of his growing up is not limited to reaching a particular age milestone. Rather the Torah states, ויצא אל אחיו. This is translated as "he went out to his brothers." It's more than a rather innocuous statement. The Torah teaches us that while Moshe may have been growing up in the Egyptian lap of luxury, he identified as a Jew and went out to assist them in the best way he knew. Moreover, he was sincerely empathetic to their plight and identified with their struggle. The idea of a Jew who is living a life of relative ease identifying with the plight of our brothers and sisters in crisis is something that weighs on me. Of course, we are not immune to hardship and challenges. That being said, the conversation is totally different when it comes to our brethren who may have a family member held hostage in Gaza or may have just buried a young son who served in the IDF. Moshe taught us many great lessons. He taught us the importance of being empathic to our brothers and sisters in crisis in his early years. He taught us that this is not just "news" but our problem and should occupy a significant amount of our headspace. He taught us what it means to grow up. 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 ...