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ChabadNewOrleans Blog

ChabadNewOrleans Blog


Shine Those Stars

Thursday, August 25, 2005 was opening day for Torah Academy’s academic year. There were 60 students filling the classrooms and expectations for a great year were very high. Over a decade had passed since the school was established with just 18 children and things were looking up. Three days later the gulf south was assaulted by Hurricane Katrina, resulting in region-wide evacuation, wide-ranging devastation and the deaths of nearly 2,000. The school building at 5210 West Esplanade Ave took a significant hit. In the months that followed, the building was used as a temporary location for JEDCO and the SBA, as well as a logistics point for hurricane relief and construction workers.

In January of 2006, after a stop-gap renovation to make the facility usable, school reopened. However more than half of the student body did not return. Torah Academy went through many travails until, finally, the beautiful new facility was completed in the summer of 2014. Now the student body has grown once again to pre-storm numbers. A top-notch early childhood program, along with dedicated teachers and administration, are making Torah Academy a highly rated institution, at which the students enjoy a quality education. Torah Academy successfully integrates a well-rounded general education together with a superior Judaics immersion, enabling our children to grow up to be excellent citizens and committed Jews. Torah Academy graduates have been able to attend the high-schools, colleges and Yeshivas of their choice. Many have earned high level honors at the next stages of their education.

Torah Academy has become one of the gems of which the NOLA Jewish community should be very proud.

As the school continues to grow and develop both quantitatively and qualitatively, appreciation for the integral role that Torah Academy plays in our community will also grow. Hopefully this will translate into greater financial support as well. In the meantime every good school needs funds in order to survive and thrive. In what is becoming an annual event, the Torah Academy auction fundraiser, Shining Stars II is slated to take place on Sunday, May 7th - 6 PM at the school, honoring Barry & Alona Katz. To make a reservation, purchase a journal ad or auction tickets, please go to or call 504.233.8018.

A memorial event – honoring the late Chabad of Louisiana Shliach, Dr. David Kaufmann will take place on Wednesday evening, May 24 at Chabad Uptown. Details of the program will be released in the coming weeks.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Lessons Learned on the Road

Some of you may remember our family’s adventures on road trips in years past.

Thank G-d we had no car trouble or other trip related mishaps this year. We had a wonderful smooth trip. Yet there is plenty to learn from a trip that goes well.

Just to share a few… For any major undertaking to be successful, the details are very important. We usually get caught up in what appears to be the big picture, that which gets all the attention. However the little things are integral to the big picture coming out right. On a road trip every little details contributes to the success and comfort of the endeavor. To give an example. On our way up we forgot to include tablecloths on our list. Big deal right? But when you pull up to a rest stop with a bunch of Kosher food and every table is caked in residue of non-Kosher food (not to mention the cleanliness aspect of it), all of a sudden that missed tablecloth seems like a big deal. There are dozens of others “minimal” things that are similar.

Another lesson (that kind of extends from the first) is not kicking tasks down the road (no pun intended). Sometimes, in the interest of expediency, we cut corners on getting things done and we assume that we can just as well perform those tasks later. For example, when packing a car for a long drive, as one gets closer to departure time it is tempting to throw that last few things in without regard for where they belong and how it will impact the accessibility of things needed during the trip. Then you need something when it is late and dark and you are exhausted, but because of your expedient packing method you suddenly find that the item you need is buried under “stuff.”

These lessons are very applicable in Jewish life. In this week’s Torah portion we have the tragic story of the death of the two sons of Aaron. Nadav and Avihu we highly spiritual and righteous but they only cared about the big picture. They ignored the details, the minutiae of the Temple law, the procedures of the Temple service and the protocols for proper spiritual conduct. The result was, that in the act of attempting to come as close to G-d as a human is capable of, they violated the laws, procedures, and protocols, which ultimately caused their demise.

There is no such thing as “big picture” Judaism that ignores the details of the laws. It is the details and the procedures that complete the big picture and allow us to soar higher and closer to G-d. Every mitzvah comes with its protocols and structure. When one ignores them, one may feel temporarily uninhibited by minutiae and procedure, but in the end one loses everything in the process. On the other hand following the details and the procedures is ironically liberating and rewarding.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

A Holiday of Fives

I hope that everyone has been enjoying a wonderful and meaningful Passover so far. We often regard Passover as a holiday of "fours." There are four cups of wine at the seder. There are the four sons, the four questions, the four expressions of redemption in the Exodus narrative. The number four is significant in Kabbala as it reflects many "fours" in the way the ancients categorized existence - including the four elements of air, fire, earth and water, as well as the four aspects of human, animal, botanical and inanimate (silent).

During our Seder this year we were discussing this idea with our children and one of my daughters pointed out that in actuality Passover is a holiday of "fives" rather than "fours." And she began to enumerate the fives by drawing on the mystical and chassidic interpretation of many of those "fours." In addition to the four cups of wine there is a fifth cup - the cup of Elijah. In addition to the four sons mentioned in the Haggadah there is the fifth one the Rebbe talked about, the son who, sadly does not intend to even come to the Seder table. In addition to the four questions, there is the fifth one mentioned by Maimonides that they used to ask in Temple times about why the meat on "this night" must be roasted. In addition to the four expressions of redemption that G-d declares to the children of Israel - "I will take you out, I will save you, I will liberate you, I will take you as a nation" - there is also the fifth expression, "I will bring you to the land that I have promised." She went on to point out it is also the Chabad custom to break the middle Matzah (used later for the afikoman) into five pieces. 

So what's the deal? What indeed is the difference between four and five and why is there this fifth element underlying the well known four? To appreciate the answer let us first touch on an English word that can shed some light on the matter - Quintessence. The dictionary tells us that this word means either the pure or most concentrated essence of a substance or the most prefect embodiment of something. But both of these definitions would be served with just the word "essence." Why the need to add the prefix "quint" meaning five or fifth? In ancient philosophy they used this term to refer to the fifth and highest element that permeates all of nature (see above regarding the four elements). In Kabbala the fifth dimension or element is also used as a reference to the highest and purest essence. Case in point: the Zohar describes the soul as having five names or levels - Nefesh, Ruach, Neshama, Chaya, and Yechida. The first three levels refer to the soul as we experience it. The fourth is the transcendant element of the soul, which hovers above the body and connects it to the ethrereal realms. The fifth - Yechida - is the essence or quintessence of the soul, which is one with its Source, the Infinite One. 

Now we can understand how the fours of Passover morph into fives. Each of the fours has a fifth element that is the essence of that category. Let us examine each of them in that light.

The fifth cup is the cup of Elijah. While the four cups refer primarily to the first redemption - the exodus from Egypt, Elijah's cup calls forth the future redemption, the ultimate, and indeed, the quintessence of all redemptions.

The fifth son is the one who does not intend to come to the Seder. Yet this son too posseses a Yechida soul element through which can and must awaken his essential connection to G-d and Judaism. This reveals that at the core every Jew is connected to Hashem.  

On a deeper level, the four questions refer to the "night" of exile. Each of them questions another aspect of our bitter and long displacement from our "Father's home." The fifth question is an allusion to the time when the Temple will be rebuilt after Moshiach comes, when once again we will be welcome back at our "Father's table."

The four expressions of redemption in the Exodus narrative speak of the redemption from Egypt but fall short of bringing them to promised land. The fifth expression speaks of the Jews being brought to the Promised land, again an allsuion to the final redemption. 

The five pieces of the Afikoman allude to the five levels of the soul, most prominently the quintessence - the Yechida.

This is the beauty of an education that is informed by the teachings of Chassidus. A child is capable of picking up the subtle nuance of the underlying qunitessence of Passover and indeed all of Judaism. May we each merit to access our personal quintessence, which will ultimately bring the universe and even the cosmos, to experience the complete and final redemption through Moshiach, the individual to whom Kabbala refers as the general Yechida of the universe. 

Speaking of Moshiach, the last day of Pesach was designated by our sages as the day on which the aura of Moshiach is prevelant. As such the Baal Shemtov instituted the special celebration of faith - meal of Moshiach during the closing moments of Pesach. Please join us at Chabad Uptown or Chabad Metairie for this celebration (details above).

At Chabad Uptown this celebration is dedicated by Rabbi Zelig & Bluma Rivkin and family in loving memory of Rabbi Sholom Gordon, whose Yahrtzeit is the last day of Pesach.  

Wishing you a wonderful and meaningful rest of Pesach!
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Preaching by Example

Earlier this week, during a prison chaplaincy visit, a discussion ensued about various methods for people to teach and influence. One of the Jewish inmates was trying to persuade the others to adopt a principled stand with regards to the standard of Passover foods being furnished by the prison. He was employing an approach of pointing out what he felt was the right thing to do by highlighting how inappropriate or even hypocritical the lack of principle would be.

As I was observing the dialogue and upon having my opinion sought, I suggested a different method. I shared with them that my daughter, Chana was celebrating her Bas Mitzvah later in the week and used that as a springboard to present the alternative approach.

Let me break for a moment to wish Chana Mazel Tov. Her celebration was last night and it was absolutely beautiful. (I will share photos when they become available.) In her usual fashion, my wife, Malkie, produced an amazing presentation that included food, décor, singing, dancing and teaching from many angles. Chana represented herself very in an elegant manner and we are very proud of her.

Back to my point. At the Bas Mitzvah, we read a letter that the Rebbe sent Malkie upon the occasion of her Bas Mitzvah. This letter was read at each of our daughters’ Bas Mitzvahs. IN addition to blessing the Bas Mitzvah girl, the Rebbe also encourages her to influence her friends in a positive way and points out that first and foremost that influence comes by showing a personal example.

This is a simple yet profound lesson. The loudest preaching and the deepest lecture is not as effective as “walking the walk.”

When Reb Bunim of Peshischa, a 19th century Chassidic master, was a child, his father hosted a group of Torah scholars for a visit. They heard about the child’s prodigious Torah learning and they asked him to share a thought on the topic he was learning at the time, the Mitzvah of welcoming guests. He went into the other room, ostensibly to prepare his remarks. When he returned he asked them to join him the other room. Instead of a lecture, the boy had prepared a room of with a bed and wash basin for each of them. Actions speak louder than words.

I hope that my words were taken to heart and that peace will reign in the miniscule Jewish community of the Federal Prison that I visit. In any case this is true across the board. Passover is a time when a lot of people are more strict about their standards than they may be the rest of the year. We need to make sure that we influence not just by preaching but also by example.

Our monthly Lunch N Learn takes place this Monday, April 3 at 12 noon – NY Camera – 705 Canal St. Topic: Not Yo Mama’s Four Sons – A new take on the four sons of the Seder.

To sell your chametz online:

To make Seder arrangements contact Chabad Metairie – 504-454-2910.

Wishing you a wonderful season of freedom and liberation!
Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Embracing Freedom

Passover is called the festival of liberation. Freedom is such a loaded concept. We throw the idea around and it represents so many different things. I think that we would seemingly agree, that having restrictions imposed upon someone would represent the absence of freedom. Yet, let’s think about what happened to the Jewish people when they left Egypt – the moment we call the liberation of our nation. We merely exchanged one set of restrictions for another, one master for another. We went from being obligated to Pharaoh, to being obligated to Hashem. The Torah actually declares “they are My “avadim” (slaves) for I took them out of Egypt.” So where is the big freedom?

So we need to analyze the question “is Torah an enslavement of the Jewish people?” Interestingly, our sages comment on the term used to describe the manner in which the words were inscribed on the tablets – charut (engraved) – saying that charut is related to cherut (Hebrew for freedom). Based on this, they declare that true freedom can only come from the study and observance of Torah.

At the risk of over-simplifying a complex idea, I would like to propose a two-tiered solution to this problem. The first is, that not only does absence of structure in life not guarantee freedom, it almost always assures chaos, which inevitably leads to misery. So taking them out of Egypt without providing a structure within which to live would not have given them freedom, but rather anarchy. So implementing a structure for their new lives was an absolute necessity for their continued liberated status. The same is true for all people in subsequent times.

Which leads us to the more important tier two. For a human being to welcome Hashem’s will into his life is highly empowering and therefore highly liberating. Through Torah and Mitzvot, a person enters into a relationship with Hashem. The person can sense the love that Hashem has for him, and the value that Hashem ascribes to his life choices. This leads a person to embrace these “rules” not as restrictions that infringe on his life, but rather as Divine direction for meaningful, G-dly living. There cannot be anything more liberating and free than a person who has such a relationship with G-d.

So this Pesach, when we think about freedom and liberty, let us remember what it is really all about and embrace the opportunity to implement more and more of this freedom giving structure called Torah and Mitzvot.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Purim Recap, Photos and Beyond

Last weekend we celebrated the most joyous holiday of Purim. I am excited to share with you that, between Purim shuttle, Purim parties and Megillah readings, thousands of New Orleans Jews were touched by Chabad’s Purim activities and celebrations. Here is a brief recap of how that came about.

Eighty five participants and several dozen volunteers enabled us to pack and deliver over 270 Purim Shuttle packages to home in the New Orleans area. Malkie and I would like to thank the following volunteers who assisted with this amazing project (forgive me if I leave someone out). Bina Lefkowitz, Beverly Serebro, Jill Halpern, Eti Buskela, Lauren Sturm & Jacob, Jennifer Feld, Sara Rivkin, Anna Gil, Alan Smason, Adam Stross, Alan Krilov, Judy Newman, Lou Furman, Jonathan Kaufman, Morris & Yitzi Lew, Toni Weiss, Alex Cazabat, Orit Naghi, Shane & Esther Schreiber, Mazal Avitan, Rabbi Yochanan Rivkin, Rabbi Yossi Chesney, Shloime Greenwald, Gershon Schreiber and Peter Seltzer. Photos below.

On Purim Eve (Saturday night) Purim parties were held at Uptown, Metairie, Tulane, Biloxi and Baton Rouge. At Chabad Uptown over 120 attended, including an appearance by Israeli NBA player Omri Casspi and his wife Shani. Following an interactive Megillah reading and Havdallah, a great Purim party featuring Uzzi Varshaver on the Piano, joined for time by Lauren Sturm and later by Daniel Gale on the violin. The music went for hours and a good time was had by all. Photos below.

The following day, Megillah readings took place at Chabad Uptown, Metairie, Tulane, Bilox and Baton Rouge as well as Lambeth House, David Antiques in the French Quarter and Moishe House, capped off by a final call reading at the Grand Purim Feast at Torah Academy.

This year’s Purim feast theme was Purim in the Big Apple. Torah Academy’s multi-purpose room was transformed into scenes of the New York street. A subway station, street vendors offering hot-dogs and pretzels, a NY deli and fish market, the Manhattan skyline and 770 Eastern Parkway completed the look. A Big Apple menu and awesome music by Panorama Jazz Band rounded out the evening. A host of creative New York themed costumes abounded, including a few NYPD cops who were arresting people for public intoxication. Photographer Gil Rubman captured the event on camera and his photos will be available next week, G-d willing. A big shout out to all of the volunteers and committee members for their hard work and efforts in pulling off a quality event. These outstanding themes and Purim parties are making it harder to top from year to year!

Purim is now in the rear-view mirror which means that Pesach is around the corner… for all of your Pesach needs remember that is the place to go. We will have the Chametz sale form up next week, G-d willing. For your community Seder check in with Chabad Metairie – Our monthly Lunch N Learn will take place on Tuesday, March 28 and will have a Pesach related topic – the Four Sons of the Seder.

Today was the funeral of Saul Barber. I met Saul in the summer of 1998 when I started serving as Rabbi of Anshe Sfard. He was the long-time Gabbai of the Shul. He was a soft-spoken person who did not like the controversy often associated with Shul politics. But he was staunchly principled when it came to Synagogue customs and practices. He inherited a prayer book from his predecessor, Henry Katz, in which all of the Shul customs were marked. When High Holidays came, he was like a general, directing the order of the service and ensuring that it was done the correct way. He proudly shared with me his memories of growing up in the old neighborhood near the Shul and how his mother wore a Sheitel. His presence will be missed and may his memory be for a blessing.

Good Shabbos
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Party for the Heaven of it!

Purim is no joke! As a matter of fact we take Purim very seriously. So, you may ask, why all the revelry that makes it look eerily similar to a certain festival that just ended two weeks ago? To quote my beloved late colleague, Dr. David Kaufmann, "while they party for the heck of it, we party for the heaven of it." 

The celebrating on Purim has the Halachic designation of "Kedushas Purim - the holiness of Purim," implying a certain sense of earnestness. Yet it is a time to go beyond the structures of everyday joy - "ad d'lo yada" as our sages instruct. 

Somehow we manage to straddle these two seemingly opposite extremes, maintaining Kedushah, while at the same time, celebrating over the top. If you want to see how this is done, you will have to come experience it for yourself. Join us at one of the many Purim events at Chabad and learn how to party for the heaven of it.

Happy Purim and Shabbat Shalom 

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

David Kaufmann OBM - A Loss for New Orleans

It is with a heavy heart and profound sadness that I share the news of the passing of community leader, my fellow (senior) Shliach, family friend and longtime neighbor, Dr. David Kaufmann.

Dr. Kaufmann was one of the first (if not the first) people to get involved with Chabad in 1975 when my parents arrived in New Orleans. While pursuing graduate studies at UNO and later Tulane, he also pursued his other passion, Jewish learning. David was a regular at our home and entertained us kids with songs and stories. He always had a pipe and a chess board handy. After marrying Nechama and starting their family; and completing his PHD in English at Tulane, David and Nechama joined the staff of Chabad as Shluchim to New Orleans. For years they directed Camp Gan Israel and then also became the directors of Chabad’s activities on Tulane’s campus. David also spearheaded the highly popular Chanukah @ Riverwalk program and continued to coordinate it until recent years.

His true love was learning, especially Chassidus and the teachings of the Rebbe, which he shared at every opportunity. David had a profound influence on many people as a Shliach, teaching and inspiring in his unique manner, and also as a professor of English and Jewish studies at Tulane. For years he led a Tanya study group with a diverse group in attendance. His classes on the Rebbe’s “sichos” (talks) were much anticipated. I will take the liberty of sharing that he developed a deep friendship with Mr. Bill Norman and they continued their weekly study sessions all through David’s illness until very recently, and even then David was talking about resuming as soon as he reclaimed his strength.

He was influential in the growth of Torah Academy serving in many capacities over the years, not the least of which was Chess Club instructor, once leading the club all the way through the tournaments, nearly to the top of the city rankings. David was an author of many books spanning several genres. He was also a translator and an editor. He was a pioneer in using the internet and email for Jewish outreach, through which he developed a relationship with the legendary online Jewish figure, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Kazen. For years, Dr. Kaufmann authored the lead section in the weekly L’chaim Newsletter published by Lubavitch Youth in New York.

All of the above aside, most central to David’s life was being a Chosid and Shliach of the Rebbe, and of course, his family. He deeply regarded the Mitzvah of honoring parents. His pride and joy were his wife, children and grandchildren.

This past summer, Dr. Kaufmann stood before us at Project Talmud, and bravely spoke about Faith in Times of Crisis. It was – at times – an emotional presentation that strongly impacted the listeners. We all had hoped that it would be strictly a rear-view mirror perspective. Alas, it was not meant to be and this morning our community suffered the loss of one of our best.

The funeral will be held tomorrow (Friday) at 10 AM in Houston at the Beth Jacob Cemetery, 2300 Almeda-Genoa Road. Shiva will follow in Houston through next Thursday morning.

Our hearts are broken for the loss but even more so for Nechama and their children, Saadya (Chaya Sarah), Rachel (Mendy) Traxler, Shmuel (Rivky), Chaya (Berry) Silver, Yosef (Chana), Chana (Yaakov) Hellinger, and Devorah Leah. May Hashem comfort you among the mourners of Tzion and Yerushalayim and may we very soon experience the Geulah, the time when “death will cease forever and Hashem will wipe the tears off every face.”

We wish to extend condolences to Toni Weiss and Gary Remer upon passing of her father, Kurt Strauss. I remember him coming to Chabad on occasion with Toni to say Kaddish after his wife's passing and he always seemed like a person who made the most of life. He passed at the age of 95. May his memory be for a blessing to the whole family.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Humanizing Criminals

Regular readers of these weekly thoughts are aware that I have some experience with prison chaplaincy. Over the past 18 years I have seen federal, state and parish prisons on the inside, including the infamous state penitentiary at Angola. Thankfully, the conditions and treatment of prisoners in this country are nothing like those under Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot. After all, we live in a nation of laws and human rights. That being said, there is much room for improvement, both regarding prison life as well as sentencing reform.

I have encountered many prison officials and officers that have deep respect for the dignity and humanity of the inmates. I have also seen many who seem to view them as subhuman. This is a dangerous slippery slope to which can be traced much of the injustice in the prison and justice system. A criminal, despite the crime that he committed, and it may very well be a real crime against another or many other humans, is still a person, who is entitled to human dignity. This does not diminish the negativity of the criminal act or its impact on the victim. One can be wrong and liable for punishment while still retaining the right to human dignity.

I would like to cite a proof from this week’s Torah portion. When discussing the penalty for theft, the Torah says that a thief who is caught must make restitution at double the amount of what he stole. If the theft is of an ox or sheep, which he then slaughtered or sold, the thief must pay four times the value of the sheep and five times the value of the ox. Why the difference between an ox and a sheep? Rashi brings two opinions. (I cite them in reverse order to make the point.) Rabbi Meir says, that because the ox can work, the loss to owner is greater than that of the sheep, which does not work. Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai says, that G-d is considerate of human dignity. While the ox walks on its own, the sheep must be carried by the thief over his shoulder. Therefore the payment is reduced because of the indignity suffered by the thief.

I can hear the indignation, “Poor little thief had to carry the sheep on his shoulder in order to steal and we should give a reduction in his punishment because of that?” Yet this is precisely what the Torah says. Every human being has dignity that is honored by his Creator. Even a criminal, who has stooped so low as to violate someone’s property or even life, is still entitled to basic human dignity.

As for those “members of the tribe” in prison, thanks to organizations like the Aleph Institute, who have advocated for Jewish prisoners for many years, much progress has been made in restoring some of that dignity to their lives and their religious rights as Jews in prison. We still have a long way to go in changing the attitudes and practices of our justice and prison systems as it relates to sentencing and incarceration of all prisoners regardless of who they are. A good start would be to recall that every human being, even a criminal, is afforded this basic human dignity by G-d, of which we must always be aware and respect.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


Individuality and our new baby girl

Our community has had a wonderful boom of babies being born recently, including our own daughter, Miriam Henna, born last night. She is named after my Bubby Gordon ( and Malkie’s aunt Henny Machlis ( As many of you know, she is not our first child. She is blessed with a number of older brothers and sisters, thank G-d. I know some folks might be wondering if there is ever a point where the value of the child may be diminished by the size of the family. As I sat in the hospital with Malkie yesterday during her labor, I thought back to a video of a talk by the Rebbe, which we showed in Chabad House just 9 days earlier. It was focused on the narrative in this week’s Parasha, the Ten Commandments. While the video was playing, I was sitting next a member of our community, whose wife was also expecting a baby shortly. I turned and commented to him how inspiring this talk was to families who were welcoming a new child into their lives.

The Rebbe highlighted the idea that in the Holy Tongue there is a difference between the singular you and a plural you. He referenced the old English term “thou,” which had fallen out of use, as a parallel. He pointed out that while the Torah mostly addresses the collective you (y’all or ye) of the Jewish people, the Ten Commandments were addressed entirely to the singular you (thou). The intent of the singular use of you is that G-d was speaking to each person individually and not to the group as a collective. This ties in to the Midrash that every single soul that would ever be born or converted as a Jew was present when G-d spoke at Sinai. Indeed, were this not the case, then those later souls born, would not have been brought into the covenant that G-d established with each individual.

The Rebbe concluded, that a message we can take away from this teaching, is the value of each individual. He emphasized this notion by exclaiming, that a Jewish baby born over three thousand years after Revelation at Sinai, possibly even to a family that already has other children, is the singular individual to whom Hashem addressed Himself when He declared, “I am the L-rd your G-d.” It is as if that, pertaining to the connection between Hashem and this baby, nobody else needs to be part of the equation. This child has infinite value to Hashem, so much so, that Hashem spoke to this child “individual to individual” at Mount Sinai.

While Judaism certainly acknowledges and underscores the significance of the collective (this is reflected both in Halacha as well as in Kabbala), nevertheless individuality plays an extremely significant role in the Jewish outlook on life. Each of the children born may be the next Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides, Devorah or Esther; or he or she may be the next unheralded Jew who goes about life serving the Creator in a way that warranted Hashem having that personal conversation with him or her over 3,300 years ago.

Welcome to world Miriam Henna. Hashem has been waiting 5,777 years for you to stamp your impact on His universe. Hopefully this is the one that brings us all collectively to the era of Redemption speedily.

Good Shabbos
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


From Sapling to Tree

This Shabbat is the 15th of Shevat, known as the New Year for trees. Of course we celebrate for/with them, because, as the Torah points out, our lives mirror trees in many ways. You start with a seed, which, with cultivation becomes a seedling. After further nurturing the seedling develops into a sapling. Finally, with additional care, the sapling becomes a mature tree.

A human being goes through similar stages. Starting as a fetus it then is born as an infant, followed by the various phases of childhood, and then ultimately the baby becomes an adult. As with a tree, each stage of a person’s development requires care and nurturing. A Jewish child, in addition to cultivating the physical, emotional and moral developments of life, must also have the nurturing of the spirit – the Yiddishkeit. As we invest in our children and see them grow and develop into healthy, functioning, productive members of society and the Jewish people, this is called Nachas. The positive development of a child requires input from many angles, beginning with parents and family, continuing with educators, mentors and role models and including also the community and society. When the child is in a healthy and positive environment this contributes significantly to his or her growth as a person and a Jew.

This weekend our community has the opportunity of seeing one of our saplings becoming a tree. Yosef Yitzchok (Yitzi) Lew had his bris at Chabad House, followed by his upshernish, and we have seen him grow on a weekly basis in Shul on Shabbos. He attends Torah Academy, and I have had the pleasure of preparing him for his Bar Mitzvah.

It has been a treat to watch him grow up and become serious about Yiddishkeit before our very eyes. He has taken to Torah learning and spiritual growth like a fish in water. He has a passion for the Shul and our daily Minyan. (I hope he serves as an inspiration for others with his dedication to the daily Minyan.) He has discovered a love for Chassidus and the teachings of the Rebbe that burns like a fire in his heart. Yitzi is giving much nachas to his parents, grandparents, family and the whole community. My wish for him is that he be able to maintain this passion for everything good for many long and healthy years. Mazel Tov!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


Outsider Leadership

We are instructed (as per Rabbi Schenur Zalman of Liadi) to live with the times, namely the weekly Torah potion. Furthermore, as the Shelah points out, we can find parallels between the weekly parasha and the time of the year during which it is read.

These past few Torah portions have introduced us to Moses, the great Jewish leader who took us out of Egypt, split the sea, received the Torah, performed the miracles and led our people through the desert for 40 years. It is safe to say that Moshe helped shape the identity of the Jewish people and the Jewish religion through his leadership.

By Divine Providence we read these Torah portions around the month of Shevat. The 10th of Shevat is the Yahrtzeit of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe and the day that our Rebbe assumed the leadership of Chabad.

One of the most fascinating things about Moshe’s childhood was that he was raised apart from his people, as an adopted price in the royal palace of Egypt. While there he was certainly afforded all of the privileges of royalty and most definitely did not personally experience the hardships of his people’s enslavement. This can cause us to wonder if he would be the ideal choice for a leader, being that he may lack a sense of identification with the narrative of his nation.

The Ibn Ezra (12th century Jewish sage and commentator) suggests that, “Perhaps Gā€‘d caused Moses to grow up in the home of royalty, so that his soul would be accustomed to a higher sense of learning and behavior, and he would not feel lowly and accustomed to a house of slavery.” He then cites several instances in Moshe’s life where he acted nobly in saving people from distress. This implies that Moshe needed to be able to reach beyond the “slave mentality” in order to come up with the courage and fortitude necessary to liberate them.

Ibn Ezra continues, “Had he grown up among his brethren, and they would know him from his childhood days, they wouldn’t have the same sense of respect, because he would be regarded as one of them.” It’s is hard to seamlessly transition from being “one the boys” to being the boss. When people remind him that, “I was at your bris” or “I babysat you and man were you a wild kid” that makes it tough to command the respect required for successful leadership.

This in no way suggests that every leader who comes up through the ranks or from a familiar environment is unqualified. Rather, when it comes to a major revolutionary shift, the likes of which Moshe brought to the Jewish nation and the world, something a little different could be useful.

I would like to hesitantly suggest a parallel between some of these leadership aspects of Moshe and similar qualities in the Rebbe. The previous Rebbe was the sixth generation of leadership in Chabad. His father, grandfather, great-grandfather and so forth were all Rebbes. He grew up in Lubavitch and was active and involved in his father’s activities from a young age, especially the special Yeshiva that the fifth Rebbe founded in the town of Lubavitch, Tomchei Temimim.

Upon his passing, some questioned his son-in-law’s qualifications to be a Rebbe of Chabad. While the Rebbe was a distant cousin, and his father was a faithful Chosid, yet he did not grow up in Lubavitch, nor did he attend the Yeshiva there. He really was an outsider vis-a-vis the “Lubavitch scene.” Furthermore the Rebbe had spent time in university, very much an anomaly, even an anathema in Chassidic circles. Yet we find that the Rebbe propelled Chabad’s reach and influence truly transforming the Jewish world. Perhaps some out-of-the-box perspective contributed to that success.

Either way, as we read these Torah portions and mark this special anniversary of the Rebbe’s leadership it behooves us to take to heart the example of these great leaders and be inspired to implement their direction into our own lives.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


Denial Really is a River in Egypt

When we read the Exodus story, the Nile River seems to play an important part. The first of the ten plagues was turning the water of the Nile to blood. Moses regularly confronts Pharaoh while he is bathing in the Nile. The Jewish baby boys were ordered thrown into the Nile. Moses was saved by Princess Batya from the Nile. We can even go back to Jacob blessing Pharaoh in his days “that the Nile River should rise toward him.”

Why was the Nile so central to the story? Because the Nile was central to Egyptian life and society. Egypt even worshipped the Nile to some degree. The Nile served a vital function to the Egyptian economy and agriculture. Egypt gets little to no rain. Irrigation was achieved by the seasonal flooding of the Nile and the creation of tributaries off of the Nile to irrigate other areas. When Jacob blesses Pharaoh it is that the Nile should rise toward him, thereby bringing abundant irrigation and sustenance. So the Egyptians saw the Nile as the source of livelihood and therefore revered it on the level of a deity.

When Pharaoh wishes to drown Jewish babies (in whom he perceives a potential threat for rebellion) they are thrown into the Nile, the great protector and source of livelihood. In the Haftara, we find Pharaoh declaring, “The Nile is mine and I made it.” He denies the True Source of all blessings associated with the Nile. Thus, when G-d, through Moses and Aaron, begins to smite the Egyptians, He begins with the Nile.

Now what does this have to do with us thousands of years later and thousands of miles from the Nile? Mitzrayim (Egypt) is not just a place but a state of consciousness. It represents the limitations and boundaries that are upon a person from within and without, all for the purpose of weakening or eliminating one’s relationship with Hashem.

What would the Nile represent in this picture? The urgency of being hyper-focused on a livelihood without acknowledging from where those blessings originate. For example, people, whose concern for their child’s secular education and subsequent ability to earn a living, causes them to compromise on or eliminate entirely their child’s Torah education, have effectively thrown that child into “the Nile.” A person whose concern with making a living causes him to compromise on keeping Shabbat or on maintaining honesty in business dealings, is in a subtle sense “worshipping the Nile.” If one truly believed that the source of all blessings is Hashem, then one could not conclude that going against Hashem’s will would increase those blessings.

So redemption begins with confronting Pharaoh in the Nile and is then followed by smiting the Nile. We have free ourselves of the Nile mindset; the Mitzrayim state of consciousness, thereby liberating ourselves to acknowledge and accept that Hashem is indeed the source of all blessing. We are then free to worship Him without inhibitions. So Shabbat is not an obstacle to earning a living but rather a vehicle to earning a living. Honesty becomes the means by which business success is achieved. Starting and ending the day with a Minyan and some Torah study is the great facilitator for a livelihood blessed by Hashem. This, my friends, really is liberated living. Let the resistance begin!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


Teaching Judaism Using Multiple Intelligences

Way back when, there was only one standard method of teaching: transmitting information in writing or through speech. During the second half of the 20th century a flurry of alternative educational methods were introduced: multiple intelligences, learning modalities and so forth. There are some for whom a visual method is ideal. For some it is music. For some it is kinesthetic, etc. There are some matters that are better taught using multiple methods. These theories revolutionized education, to the benefit of the recipients.

Truth be told, Judaism has long known this, and these methods were incorporated into our oldest “teachable moment,” the Passover Seder. We use auditory, visual, music, kinesthetic and other methods to relate the Passover story to our children and families. But it really didn’t catch on as much in other settings for thousands of years.

In the 1980s, Chabad Rabbis started to develop programs that incorporated hands-on experiences into the teaching of holidays and traditions. Programs such as the Model Matzah Bakery and the Shofar Factory became effective tools in bringing holidays and traditions to life for the children (and adults).

We can get up and speak about Passover. To kids it sounds like this: “Next week we’re celebrating Passover. Our ancestors the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt… blah blah… Moses brought the ten plagues (kid thinks, “cool”), blood, frogs… blah blah… so therefore we eat this Matzah every year to remember. (Kid thinks, “Wait, why do we eat Matzah? I must have missed that part.”) But when we do a hands-on program, utilizing multiple intelligences and various learning modalities, that catches their attention. The feeling of the dough in their hands, the excitement of sifting, mixing, kneading and shaping, and the smell of the Matzah in the oven, all contribute to an inspired learning experience that they will not soon forget.

The same is true of the Shofar Factory, the Torah Factory, the Olive Press and the Mezuzah Factory. They all capture the attention and the imagination of the participants and leave them with a richer appreciation of the particular holiday or tradition.

A recent addition to this approach is the Kids Mega Challah Bake. Our region’s first one is scheduled for Sunday, January 29 and is presented by Camp Gan Israel in partnership with PJ Library. The program will make Shabbat more real for the children. Instead of just hearing about why we celebrate Shabbat, eat Challah or the other traditions, they will experience it with their own hands. These opportunities must not be missed. They can have life-long impact on our children. Check it out at

Chabad of Montana has launched a project to combat the anti-Semitism that has raised its ugly head in Whitefish by spreading light. The goal is to gift a Chumash to each of the 1500 Jewish households in Montana, on behalf of Chabad, from Jewish and gentile supporters from around the nation. To show your support go to

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


Just a Drop of Ink

I was checking the Mezuzahs at a business owned by members of the community this week. We discovered an issue with one of the scrolls. The form of a single letter was misshapen; there appeared to be a drop of ink that had either run or dripped into the space of the letter rendering it invalid.

We got to talking about the impact that just a drop of ink can have. I recalled the passage in the Talmud where the sage warns the scribe how careful he must be with the letters. “With one drop of ink one can destroy the world.” Seems a little hyperbolic?

The letters Daled and Reish are almost identical in form. The only difference is a slight protrusion of ink off of the back of the top line of the daled. It is as if a little yud sticks out of the back of the daled, whereas the reish does not have that. What is a yud? A drop of ink. Now picture a scribe writing the words of the Shema. The last word of the line is Echad, ending in a daled. Imagine if a fly touched down on the parchment at the exact spot and erased the ink of the little yud (drop) on the back of the daled. We would then be left with a reish, rendering the word as Acher (other) rather than Echad (one). We have now transformed the meaning of the verse from a pivotal declaration of Divine Unity, to a command to worship a foreign deity.

Let’s explore this a little further and see what this all represents in our personal character development. The words Daled and Reish have similar meanings – poor and destitute. Kabbala explains that the difference between the two is the drop of ink protruding from the back of the daled. That drop of ink, the yud, represents humility (the yud being the smallest letter of the Alef-bet). Let’s view the poverty here as spiritual poverty (poverty of knowledge, of character, of spiritual sensitivity or of holiness). If so, the difference between the poor Daled and the destitute Reish is humility. The daled (with the yud protrusion) is humble and is therefore open to influence and change. The reish (minus the yud) lacks humility and is therefore resistant to influence and change. A full cup cannot accept any more liquid whereas an empty one can.

Now we can begin to appreciate the power of just a drop of ink in the literal sense as it relates to Mezuzahs, Tefillin and Torah scrolls, as well in the figurative sense as it relates to personal growth. I encourage all of us to have our ink inspected on both levels. (Chabad is happy to help with any and all of the above.)

Have a wonderful Shabbos!
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


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