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 ...