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

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 ...