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Inflated, Deflated and Healthy Egos

The most important “ritual item” at the Seder is the Matzah. We eat Matzah because that is what Hashem commanded us (even before we left Egypt – along with the original Pesach lamb), as well as to commemorate the exodus and the dough they carried out that did not have the opportunity to rise. Conceptually Matzah is also associated with humility, as it is dough that is not allowed to rise.

If bread that rises is connected to an inflated ego, then it would seem that even more compelling that Matzah should be bread made from a grain that cannot rise at all on its own, such as rice or millet. Yet the Talmud clearly instructs that a grain that cannot become Chametz (leavened), may not be used to make Matzah. Only grain that has the potential to rise can be used for Matzah, in which rising is restricted. This is an interesting wrinkle in the arrogance vs. humility dynamic.

With respect to grain there are three possibilities, grain that cannot rise on its own, grain that can rise but is restricted from doing so, grain that can rise and does. Similarly when it comes to the ego there are three possibilities. There is an inflated ego (Chametz), a deflated ego (grain that cannot rise), and a healthy ego (Matzah).

What is the difference between the deflated ego and the healthy ego? Deflated ego is reflected in people who do not possess a sense of self-worth. They are lowly in their own eyes. These types of folks cannot achieve much. A “healthy ego” would be people who are aware of their positive qualities while at the same time recognizing that they are gifts from G-d and nothing to boast about. These are people with a strong sense of self-worth and the confidence to accomplish their goals.

On Pesach our job is to rid ourselves of arrogance and inflated ego, but not to get to a state of lowliness. Matzah is the perfect balance. In fact Chametz – inflated ego, is often as much as an indication of lack of self-worth as lowliness. It is just that in this case, the ego is inflated to compensate for the missing confidence, whereas in the case of a deflated ego the result is lowliness. A healthy state is the one where people have the confidence to do what Hashem wants them to, without letting it “go to their heads.”

We are not doormats. We are empowered by G-d to accomplish a lot and change the world. Yet we are always cognizant that the empowerment comes from Hashem alone, and we therefore do not attribute our successes to ourselves. Sometimes we need an ego check to ensure that we are staying on track. That is one of the dimensions of the Pesach holiday.

If you are still looking for a place for the seders, please contact Rabbi Nemes at Chabad Metairie – 504-454-2910 or

Wishing you a kosher, happy and meaningful Pesach!
Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Three Torahs - Triple the Love

This coming Shabbat we will experience something that is fairly uncommon in Jewish life, three Torahs will be taken from the ark and read. Usually we use only one Torah. On special days we use two Torahs. Three Torahs are used on Simchat Torah. There are three other occasions when three Torahs are used depending on calendrical quirks. When Chanukah, Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh Tevet coincide, when Rosh Chodesh Adar and Shabbat coincide (we add parshat Shekalim), and when Rosh Chodesh Nissan and Shabbat coincide, as it does this year. We will read the weekly Parsha – Vayikra, the section for Rosh Chodesh, and Parshat Hachodesh (the section about the Pesach offering).

Even children, who do not necessarily comprehend what is being read in the Torah, recognize that something special is going on in Shul, when they see three Torahs being removed from the ark. The can line up to kiss not one, not two, but three Torahs as they pass through the Synagogue.

Why is this so special? The Torah represents many things to the Jewish people. It is our history, our heritage, our guide for G-dly living, some of the most profound wisdom available to humankind, and much more. One of the most important of all is, that Torah is a symbol of G-d’s love for the Jewish people. The Torah is described in Talmud, Midrash and Kabbala as one of the most precious entities in G-d’s possession. The greatest expression of love that G-d ever demonstrated was to give this most precious gift to our people.

Think about the words of the blessings we recite when reading the Torah. “Who has chosen us from among all the nations and given us His Torah… Who has given us the Torah of truth and planted eternal life within us…” The depth of G-d’s love for us was, and is, on full display with the giving of the Torah. So each individual Torah scroll is a symbol of that deep love. When three Torah scrolls are taken out of the ark – that is Hashem’s love in triplicate. Love so deep must elicit a reciprocal love from us to Hashem. Consequently, when three Torah scrolls are removed from the ark – that is also triple the love rebounding from us to G-d.

Last week an elderly woman, who’d been living in a senior’s facility for years, passed away. Adele Cahn was quite involved in the Jewish community in her younger years, but the last few years she led a somewhat reclusive life at Lambeth House. Chabad offers quite a bit of programming at Lambeth House, including monthly and holiday events, but Adele declined to come out to participate. Every Rosh Hashanah a delegation of adults and children (usually led by Adam Stross and Saadya Kaufmann) walk from Chabad to Lambeth House to sound the shofar for the Jewish residents there. After sounding the Shofar for the group that gathered, they would go to the rooms of the residents who were unable to come down. Each year Adele Cahn would receive the delegation in her room, and delight in the ability to participate. It was one of the highlights of her time there. She will be missed. We are proud to know that our annual delegation was able to give her that joy, making her last years a little more meaningful.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Does Spiritual = G-dly?

How many times have we heard someone we know (maybe even ourselves) state, “I am not religious/observant, but I am spiritual.” What does that mean? I am not sure I can divine (no pun intended) what each person means with that statement, but let’s try to define the terms on a literal as well as colloquial basis.

Spiritual is defined in the dictionary as, A. Related to the spirit as opposed to material or physical. B. Related to religion or a religious belief. This would imply that in order to be spiritual one has to either, A. Believe in a soul or spirit. B. Accept a religious belief. Colloquially, the definition of spiritual has been expanded to include a quest for personal meaning and growth, an inner dimension and “sacred space” outside of the confines of organized religion. Often, but not always, the colloquial definition would be applied by people who believe in G-d, but don’t accept that a particular “organized religious path” is the truest way to connect with G-d.

Let’s take a look at what Judaism (granted a somewhat organized religion), within the context of Chasidism, has to say about this. Kabbala teaches and Chassidus echoes the teaching, that Hashem is beyond the grasp of the finite, and that humans through their own efforts could never achieve a connection. Therefore G-d gave us tools, which are invested with the power of the infinite, to enable us to bridge the gap. These tools are called Mitzvot. In addition to meaning a commandment, Mitzvah is also etymologically associated with the Aramaic – Tzavta – meaning connection. Within this paradigm, the only, and I repeat, only possible manner that a human being can achieve a communion with G-d, is by using the tools that G-d gave us, AKA Mitzvot. The obvious exception would be if Hashem decided to give us another (short term) method.

A fascinating example of this can be found in this week’s Torah reading. The people of Israel construct the Sanctuary so that they could connect (experience the Divine Presence in their midst). Everything is ready and complete, but no Divine Presence. Then they start to perform the service and use the Sanctuary as they were commanded by G-d. All of a sudden “The Glory of G-d fills the Sanctuary.”

In a similar sense, we can apply all kinds of activities and experiences to feel spiritual and closer to G-d, but if we don’t do things on His terms, we fall short. It might feel good, but it ain’t G-dly.

Purim with Chabad by the numbers:

12+ Megilah Readings in the NOLA metro area
300+ People heard the Megillah at those readings
270+ Purim Shuttle Packages packed and delivered by 20+ Volunteers
200+ People attended Purim in Hawaii

This is besides what Chabad did for Purim in Baton Rouge and Biloxi. To support Chabad’s Purim activities this year, go to And now, we are off to Pesach!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


This week Malkie and I were blessed by Hashem with the great joy of seeing our oldest child, Mushka, engaged to be married to a wonderful young man named Yossi Cohen. He is from Montreal, yet he has a significant NOLA connection; his sister and brother-in-law, Mushka and Rabbi Leibel Lipskier, are the directors of the Tulane Chabad undergraduate program.

We are extremely new at this game, and countless people commented to us that we look to young to be marrying off a child… yet we are quite cognizant of our need for gratitude to Hashem for bringing us to this point in our lives.

Mushka is very fortunate that all four of her grandparents, may Hashem grant them long and healthy years, are present in her life and were able to celebrate with her. She is a first grandchild to them. Where it gets a little more unique, is that Mushka is also blessed to have a great-grandmother in her life, my Bubby Rivkin, may Hashem grant her continued long and healthy years.

There were many highlights to this week’s celebration. Most notably, standing with Mushka and Yossi, along with parents and grandparents, at the Rebbe’s Ohel asking for his blessing for their future marriage and life together.

Another special moment was visiting with my grandmother to get her blessing and wisdom as they embark on this new stage of their lives together. She has the benefit of much life experience, including over 60 years of her marriage to my grandfather, of blessed memory. She was dropping gem after gem of insights, advice and anecdotes to them, and to Malkie and me, about marriage and life in general. I hope that we all have the intelligence to absorb and appreciate the wisdom that she is imparting. May she continue to do so for years to come in good health.

In the meantime we are counting our blessings with immense thankfulness to Hashem for all that He has bestowed upon us. We are also very thankful to the many of you who reached out with good wishes in person, by phone and in writing. You are our extended family and we are glad to share our simcha with you!

Wishing you all a happy Adar and Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

How do you celebrate Purim in Hawaii?

One of the more Halachicly controversial places to live in the world is Hawaii. For decades the Rabbinic authorities who were versed in the subject, maintained contentious discussions with regard to the Halachic location of the International Dateline. During WWII, when Shanghai became a haven for many Polish Jews, this issue became very relevant. What are the practical ramifications? The most glaring one would be when to observe the holidays, but there are many others as well. So much so, that some of the Chabad Yeshiva students in Shanghai during the war fasted for two days in observance of Yom Kippur in case the Halacha followed the authorities that said Shanghai was still on “our side” of the dateline. While the consensus seems to have been achieved; and Hawaii was deemed to be on “our side” of the dateline, there are still some lone holdouts on the matter. Today there is an established Chabad community in Hawaii and they follow the widely accepted ruling with respect to Hawaii’s place on the Halachic map.

Why am I telling you all this? Because this year’s theme for Chabad of Louisiana’s Purim Feast is “Purim in Hawaii.” Many question the need for these themes. What’s wrong with good old Mordechai, Esther, Achashverosh and clown costumes? Why reach to the end of the world and beyond to find these themes for our Purim events?

The truth is that it is not inherently necessary. However, Chabad under the guidance of the Rebbe, realized long ago, that the best way to keep our youth engaged in Judaism is to make it enjoyable. There was a time when most kids thought of religion as long boring services on the High Holidays, being dumped on Sunday morning at Temple so that parents could sleep or have a Sunday morning to themselves, drawn-out and meaningless Passover Seders, and giving money to plant trees in Israel. Why would anyone want to continue to be engaged in that sort of thing, when TV, sports, video games, and pop culture are so much more alluring? The solution is to make Judaism exciting and enjoyable. This is something that the entire Jewish world has caught on to and with good results.

A holiday can be enjoyable and exciting, leaving positive associations. A Mitzvah or Jewish tradition can be fun and something to look forward to rather than resent. So the themed Purim parties fall under this heading. There is nothing inherently that connects Pina Colada to Purim, and a Lei is no more Purim-like than a clown. But then again there is nothing that makes them inherently not connected. So when an exciting theme makes it more attractive for people to participate and celebrate, go for it!

So join us and say “Aloha” to Purim in Hawaii – on Purim day, Thursday, March 1 @ 5 PM. The venue is Torah Academy – 5210 West Esplanade Ave. For registration and information see,

The Jewish Power Hour Program is being rescheduled to the month of April. Exact dates will be released within the next few weeks.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Hero in the Shadows

Yesterday we marked 30 years since the passing of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, wife of the Rebbe. It is fair to say that, aside from the famous Jewish women of the bible, no Jewish woman has more children named for her. There are tens of thousands of girls and women who bear her illustrious name. Yet, during her lifetime (she passed just short of her 87th birthday in 1988), the vast majority of Chassidim had very limited knowledge of her and minimal interactions. From the day her husband succeeded her father (upon her urging, despite his own hesitation) as the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1950, the Rebbetzin made a conscious decision to withdraw into the background. Some say it was in deference to the elder Rebbetzins, her mother and mother-in-law. Some say it was to protect the Rebbe’s modicum of remaining privacy. Most likely it was a combination of many reasons. Be it as it may, few chassidim even knew how she looked.

So much so, that in the 1970s, when the Rebbe launched the Shabbos Candlelighting Campaign, a Yeshiva student on the streets of Manhattan, asked her if she was Jewish and if she would like a pair of Shabbos candlesticks. She merely smiled in response. Seeing this, his friend rushed up to him, chiding him for approaching the Rebbetzin. He simply had no idea how she looked. The next day he received a message from the Rebbe’s secretary that she was very pleased that they were enthusiastically fulfilling the Rebbe’s directive of Mitzvah campaign outreach.

In the 1980s a small Shabbos apartment was built for the Rebbe and Rebbetzin in the library building next door to 770 (the main Shul and Chabad HQ). Once in a while the children or students standing in the courtyard between the two buildings, would see the curtains part as the Rebbetzin was looking to see if the Rebbe was coming. I saw her once on a Shabbos afternoon in this manner. Otherwise she was almost a legendary figure who existed only in whispers and shadows.

As a typical self-centered 14 year old at the time of her passing, I had little appreciation of what she meant to the Rebbe; and how deeply her passing would impact him, and by extension, us. I recall (with shame) seeing a woman crying profusely during the funeral and thinking to myself, “why is she so sad, did she actually know the Rebbetzin?” It was only after the Rebbe started to speak about her, and the lessons we could derive from her life, that we got an inkling of how special she was. It would not be an exaggeration to say that she was both the Rebbe’s most fervent chasid and his sole confidant. Her testimony in the Library case was highly instrumental in defining for the judge the role of a Rebbe and his relationship to chassidim.

Malkie and I are proud to have named our eldest, Chaya Mushka. She along with the tens of thousands who share that name, are living lives inspired by this special woman, thereby making a real difference in our world. May her memory be for a blessing and inspiration to us all.

This weekend, in honor of her Yahrtzeit, Chabad Shluchos (female emissaries) gather in New York for the annual conference of the most powerful and influential women in the world. May it be uplifting, blessing all their future endeavors with success.

Shabbat Shalom from Rabbi Mom
Mendel Rivkin

When More is Less

In Jewish literature there is a saying whose message is “more is less.” It has both Halachic/legal as well as philosophical applications. An example of the legal reference is regarding the Kosher status of an animal, where having an extra organ is as negative as missing one. The philosophical reference alludes to the notion that there are circumstances where adding to a discussion or argument actually detracts from the desired effect. (In modern lingo that would be known as TMI.)

How does this all fit with the idea of positive adding, such as going the extra measure when it comes to a Mitzvah or stretching oneself beyond the requirement to help another? When is more, less; and when is more a good thing?

This week’s Parsha is named Yitro, after Moshe’s father-in-law. Elsewhere in the Torah he is called Yeter (among other names). Both Yeter and Yitro are associated with the concept of adding. The Midrash points out that he is called Yitro because of his contribution to adding a passage to the Torah about judges. However the name Yeter also means added. So what additions might that name be referencing?

Chassidus explains that Yitro was a great philosopher and theologian. He explored all religions and branches of wisdom in the universe before he came to the truth of Torah and Hashem. While he was amassing wisdom, at the same time he was fattening calves for sacrificial worship to idolatry. This is possible because when wisdom is corrupted by ego and fueled by a lack of humility and submission to G-d, the greatest perversions of morality are possible. This is the meaning of Yeter. It is an addition that is actually a subtraction. Once he discovered the truth of Hashem, he became Yitro, a new kind of addition, the kind that adds to Torah rather than subtracting from it.

We find this paralleled in life as well. Some of the most cruel and corrupt people in history were also very educated. The more they learned, the more they were able to pervert that wisdom to perpetrate horrific travesties. This is true regarding science, technology, medicine and every other discipline known to humankind. On the other hand, when the learning is tempered with humility, great things result for mankind.

What changed for Yitro? The letter “vav,” signifying the truth of Torah. The “vav” is one of the four letters of the Tetragrammaton. Kabbala teaches that the “vav” represents the channeling of Divine wisdom to the world (through Torah). This then is the key. When one seeks the truth, one approaches it with a sense of humility, allowing the truth to overtake the sense of self.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Finding Love in the Classifieds

In the 1940s many Jews lived in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, among them a young Chabad yeshiva student named Mendel Baumgarten. In his Shul there was a man that never lost an opportunity to make snide remarks about Chabad and the recently arrived Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, who established himself in the next neighborhood, Crown Heights in 1940. One day the man came into Shul and announced that he wanted to publicly apologize for the derogatory manner in which he had spoken of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Baumgarten, who was always bothered by the man’s attitude, approached him to find out what changed. The man explained that due to a recent illness his assets depleted, leaving him in a distressed financial situation. He had nowhere to turn for help, so out of desperation, he placed an ad in the classified section of the Yiddish daily paper called the Morgen Journal stating, “A Jew needs help” along with his phone number. A few days later he got a call from a man identifying himself as the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s secretary saying, “The Rebbe saw the ad and requested that I inquire as to what kind of help was needed.” He described his situation and the Rebbe sent him the funds to cover his debts.   

Today, the 10th of Shevat, is the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Yahrtzeit. Upon his passing in 1950 he was succeeded by his son-in-law, our Rebbe. The Previous Rebbe’s legacy was one of love and caring for each individual and this legacy was continued and expanded by the Rebbe. There are some leaders who are great visionaries and are very good in providing leadership in the macro picture, but they have a hard time relating to the micro – the individual. Others are exceptional on the micro level, but lack the capacity to lead on the macro level. The Rebbe and his father-in-law possessed the rare combination of being able to care for both “Klal Yisrael” as well as “Reb Yisrael.” While overseeing global operations, including the Jewish underground in the Soviet Union, they were able to focus and concern themselves with the needs of the “little guy.” Ahavat Yisrael, the love and care for each Jew, is what defined their leadership, and every interaction was shaped by the principle of caring for all. This is a lesson from which we can all derive inspiration.

Have a good Shabbos
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Tips for staying warm

The last few days in the New Orleans area we have been experiencing numbing cold that has brought the city to a veritable stand-still. We were frozen not just in a barometric sense but also in the colloquial application of the term – numbed into inaction. No work, no school, no driving, no going out and getting things done. We were frozen into a state of nothingness.

This experience can give us an appreciation for why coldness is a good description for a state of disconnect from Hashem and holiness. G-dliness is warmth and light, as the verse states (Deuteronomy 4:24), “for the L-rd your G-d is a consuming fire.” Coldness reflects the notion of apathy and indifference along with a lack of motivation to get anything done.

So how do we stay warm? How do we remain enthusiastic and committed to what Hashem wants of us? I would like to share a few tips for staying warm in the frosty environment.

·         There are two ways to warm oneself against the cold. The first is to wrap oneself in warm clothing. The second is to light a fire or turn on a source of heat. The key difference is that the first method only helps the individual, whereas the second can help others as well. This is true about spiritual frost. We can insulate ourselves against the apathy to G-dliness or we can light a fire that also warms others.

·         In the olden days the home had a furnace in the center room that would provide warmth to the whole house. Obviously the closer a room was to the furnace, the warmer it would be. In order to ensure that the outer rooms of the house would be warm, the furnace in the inner room had to be stoked to a very high temperature. If the furnace would only be warm, then the outer rooms would be cold; but if the furnace was fiery hot, then the outer rooms would at least be warm. The furnace and the inner room represents the period of education and youth. The outer rooms represent the period of adulthood, when our responsibilities distract us from our immersion in Torah and Mitzvot. If the furnace is steaming hot; if our time of youth and education is fiery and steaming, then some of that warmth will be retained in our later years.

·         We must see coldness as an opportunity for transformation to warmth. The Baal Shemtov loved light and brightness. One winter night, the Baal Shemtov’s disciples did not have enough candles to illuminate the Shul. The Baal Shemtov instructed them to go outside and gather a few icicles (eiz-lichtelach) that were hanging from the roof and kindle them instead. They did so and the icicles burned and gave off light. This story conveys the approach of Chassidus to challenges. They are only intended to stir us to find deeper strength within ourselves, allowing us not only to overcome but also to transform.

Please see below for a new program that we are introducing for children later next month called the Jewish Power Hour. In the meantime stay warm in every sense of the word.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


Do Jews LOL?

Humor has played an important role in Jewish life. Books have been written on this topic. The association between humor and Jewish life has often been connected with the capacity to contend with the difficulties of exile. I would like to share two passages from the Talmud that give us an additional, perhaps more uplifting role for humor.

Rabbi Beroka (a Talmudic sage) often had encounters with Elijah the Prophet in the marketplace of Bei Lefet. Two brothers came to the marketplace. Elijah said to Rabbi Beroka: These two also have a share in the World-to-Come. Rabbi Beroka went over to the men and said to them: What is your occupation? They said to him: We are jesters, and we cheer up the depressed. (Taanit, 22a)

Before Rabba began teaching halacha to the Sages, he would say something humorous and the Sages would be cheered. Ultimately, he sat in trepidation and began teaching the halacha. (Shabbat, 30b)

What we see from these passages is that not only did humor play a role in Jewish life, but the role of humor is also sanctioned by G-d in the Torah. The jesters in the first passage are described as “men of the world to come” and the opening joke in the second passage enables the sages to focus on the lesson. In each case the humor facilitates a stronger devotion to serving Hashem. A person who is suffused with sadness will find it hard to experience the expansiveness of spirit necessary to truly have a relationship with Hashem. So the jesters brought cheer, thereby allowing their “clients” to rejuvenate their spiritual journeys. Similarly, the endorphins released by laughter at the humorous remark of the teacher, make the students that much more capable of absorbing the serious teachings subsequently being transmitted.

This is something that Tanya (Ch. 7) describes as harnessing a neutral activity to become a vehicle for holiness, thus itself becoming holy.

It is also in this spirit that we bring you Café Chabad – The Chosen Comedian. Robert Cait is a funny dude. He has wide acclaim in the world of comedy and voice over. His creds speak for themselves. But he has come to use his humor to also inspire. Originally from Toronto, Robert has been living in Los Angeles for many years. It was there that he met my uncle, Rabbi Joshua B. Gordon OBM, and their neshamas connected on a deep level. As his Yiddishkeit blossomed Robert broke into a new market – the Jewish circuit. He has performed at Synagogues, JCCs and Chabad Houses all over the English speaking world.

He will be here in New Orleans tomorrow night, Thursday, January 11 performing at Chabad Uptown at 7 PM. We look forward to seeing you there. More info: or

Happy LOL and Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


Still Relevant 800 Years Later

This Sunday is the 20th of Tevet, the Yahrtzeit of the Rambam. Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides lived over 800 years ago. Yet somehow more than 8 centuries after his passing in 1204, he continues to be highly relevant in the world of Jewish law, Jewish and general philosophy, Talmudic commentary, medical ethics and medicine, and astronomy and related sciences. There aren’t many people in world history that have remained as relevant in so many areas of life and scholarship.

I do not profess to be an expert in analyzing greatness nor in conveying an appreciation for the greatness of Maimonides. Yet, I am comfortable stating, that for the Rambam, the lens through which he saw all else was the Torah. His greatness in all other areas are wonderful accomplishments, for which he has received much acclaim. However for the Jewish people his primary accomplishment is his ability to convey the truth of Torah in a clear and precise manner, making it accessible to anyone that understands the language in which it was written. He was the first codifier of Halacha, addressing the entire spectrum of Jewish life and law. He is a primary source in interpreting the Talmud. He is a pillar of Jewish thought, addressing matters of faith, philosophy and theology. He was also a caring leader of his people, who used his medical expertise, political connections and his gift of writing to bring comfort to so many of his brethren.

In our small corner of the universe (New Orleans), and at our microscopic moment in history (21st century), we gather each month to drink from the fountains of his wisdom and to be inspired the richness of his teachings. Join us on the first Sunday of each month at 8:45 AM for Breakfast with Maimonides. A group of seekers of Torah wisdom come together to bask in the radiance of the writings of the Rambam under the guidance of Rabbi Zelig Rivkin. There are bagels and lox and much food for the mind, heart and soul. As this Sunday is his Yahrtzeit, it would be a most auspicious time to explore the class. We look forward to seeing you there.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Make America Sane Again

In the early generations of the Chasidic movement, the opposition was very fierce. Sadly, much of the opposition was a result of insidious individuals fanning of the flames of divisiveness. It had reached such a frenzied state, that many were unwilling to even take an honest look for themselves to see whether the accusations were rooted in truth or falsehood.

The first scholarly work that Rabbi Schneur Zalman (the first Chabad Rebbe) published was an excerpt of his Code of Jewish Law, the Laws of Torah Study. It was published anonymously by his request. The story is related, that when the book was brought to Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna, who was the Rabbinic leader of the opposition, he was thoroughly impressed and highly praised the scholarship. Once he found out who the author was, he changed his tune and refused to reconsider his opposition. This story indicates to us the climate of inflexibility that reigned in the Jewish world at the time. Change came about when certain individuals were willing to get “out of the box,” as well as by the necessity of working together against common adversaries.

I cite this only as a point of reference; as a means of learning from history. My intent is not to draw a comparison between individuals or ideologies. We live in a time where the climate in our society is so partisan, that one can rarely find an example of willingness to even hear the ideas of “the other side,” let alone actually work together for common good. Our political atmosphere is so poisonous, that one would not even consider an idea put forth by the other, simply because of the name or party associated with it. As social media has given everyone a platform, all we do is shrilly shout into the echo chamber, not stopping for long enough to even contemplate the possibility that there may be some valid points being made by the other.

I wish to share something I wrote in 2016 after the Orlando shooting. “Let’s take a page from the Talmud in how to deal with divergence of opinions on important issues. The Talmud is filled with Halachic disputes between sages. Perhaps the most famous disputants are Beit Hillel (school of Hillel) and Beit Shammai (school of Shammai). They argue about hundreds of cases. In the vast majority of cases the Halacha follows the opinion of Beit Hillel, as the majority of sages supported their opinion in those cases. In explaining this phenomenon, the Talmud declares that the reason why Halacha so often followed the opinion of Beit Hillel is because they were humble and they cite the view of Beit Shammai before citing their own view.

The question is, humility is very nice and being polite is also very nice, but what does that have to do with verifying truth and determining Halacha? One of the commentaries explains it in this manner. When Beit Hillel cite Beit Shammai’s opinion first it is because they truly wished to hear the opposing view and seriously consider it before offering their own. When one is seeking the truth one is truly open to hearing what the other person has to say and will seriously consider that opinion before either accepting or rejecting it.

Contrast this approach with what we have in our society today. We have sides that are entrenched, each so stuck with their agenda that they don’t pause for a moment to consider the possibility that the other side may have a legitimate contribution to the discussion. These agendas color the ability to seek truth wherever it may be found, as the saying goes, “don’t confuse me with the facts.” Or, I may add, “don’t confuse me with logical arguments.” It may actually be, that in our situation there is legitimacy to many of the arguments and the answer lies somewhere as a blend of the solutions. But if we don’t stop shouting for long enough to consider the view of another, we may never resolve these issues and more and more people will be victims of our inability and unwillingness to cooperate.”

Let us introduce sanity into the public discourse of 2018 by listening before dismissing an idea just because of by whom it is presented. Our society and our lives will be enriched as a result.

We welcome Rachel Sadres to New Orleans and to our Chabad Uptown community. Wishing you much success in all of your endeavors; may the new location bring mazel in all that you do.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


Chanukah 2017 Recap

We are coming off of the high of a wonderful Chanukah holiday and I would like to share with you, our partners in the work of Chabad – directly or indirectly – a recap of Chanukah 2017 with Chabad of Louisiana.

Olive Press Sinai 1.jpgChabad’s Living Legacy Series presented the Olive Press Craft Workshop at Northshore Jewish Congregation, Temple Sinai, Woldenberg Village and Gates of Prayer. All in all over 100 children and adults enjoyed and were enriched by the presentations. The Living Legacy Series is underwritten by a grant from the Goldring and Woldenberg Foundations. We thank Alan Franco for facilitating this grant, enabling us to enhance the holiday for so many in our community.

Taste of Chanukah Whole Foods 2.jpgOn the Sunday before Chanukah, Chabad Uptown partnered with Whole Foods Market Arabella Station for a Taste of Chanukah. For 3 hours, hundreds of latkes were made and served in the breezeway along with Chanukah materials and literature. The smell of latkes frying was drawing people from all around the store and the parking lot. Over at the Veterans location it was the children who were making Latkes along with Rabbi Zalman and Libby Groner of Chabad Metairie.

Chanukah_5778-62.jpgThe first night of Chanukah heralded the lighting of the Menorah overlooking the Mississippi. Chanukah @ Riverwalk was held at the Riverwalk food-court and terrace due to construction at the Spanish Plaza. 400 attendees enjoyed a latke bar, children’s activities and face painting, a performance by George the juggler, music by Ooh Lala and an assortment of specialty Chanukah items including our signature Chanukah beads created by Mardi Gras Zone and the Naghi family. The lighting ceremony was addressed by MC Jill Halpern, Councilman Elect Joe Giarrusso, Laura Gurievsky (Riverwalk), Henry Miller (Federation), Morris Bart, Arnie Fielkow and Rabbi Zelig Rivkin. The Menorah was lit by Richard Cahn and the blessings were sung by Yehudah Lang. This year’s event was dedicated in memory of Dr. David Kaufmann, founding coordinator of Chanukah @ Riverwalk.

That same night, Chabad Tulane lit the Menorah at the LBC quad allowing students a quick break from studying for exams to warm themselves in the light of the Menorah.

Chanukah VA.jpgDuring the second day of Chanukah a Menorah lighting ceremony was held with Rabbi Mendel Ceitlin in the VA facility. On the third eve of Chanukah a Menorah lighting celebration was held at Lambeth House. Later that evening Chanukah on the Coast was Chanukah Coast.jpgheld at Edgewater Mall in Biloxi with Rabbi Akiva and Hannah Hall, attended by 75 including the Mayor of Biloxi, Andrew “FoFo” Gilich.

On the fourth night of Chanukah, Shabbat, Mobile Menorah Parade 1.jpgChabad Metairie held their Shabbat Chanukah Family Dinner. Saturday Night, the fifth night of Chanukah, heralded the Mobile Menorah Parade. The Krewe of Chanukah paraded through downtown, the French Quarter, the Marigny and back uptown, followed by a party hosted by the Kehaty and Schreiber families.

Chanukah BR.jpgChanukah @ the Capitol in Baton Rouge was held on the sixth night with Rabbi Peretz and Mushka Kazen, attended by 100 and included a gelt drop courtesy of the Baton Rouge Fire Dept.

On the seventh night of Chanukah the women of the Rosh Chodesh Society met for a Chanukah celebration at Chabad Metairie.

This is in addition to the many private and communal celebrations of Chanukah throughout our region. This “minor holiday” has really come a long way.

On the last day of Chanukah, as the sun was setting on the east coast, the wonderful news about the release of Sholom Rubashkin was heard, and he returned home that night. Whatever one knows or thinks about the case and its details, there is no arguing that his harsh 27 year sentence was completely over the top. The news was greeted by spontaneous joy and celebration around the world, as thousands took to the streets and synagogues to rejoice. It is heartwarming to see how much caring there is from one Jew to another. This type of unity and brotherhood will surely carry us over the threshold that separates exile from redemption, may it take place very soon.

Shabbat Shalom 
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

It's All Greek To Me

We are in the midst of a wonderful Chanukah holiday with celebrations galore. (See photos below of Chanukah @ Riverwalk – credit Gil Rubman.)

I would like to take a moment amid the celebrating to reflect on a puzzling element of the Chanukah story. The Hellenists (protagonists of Greek culture) sought to influence the Jewish people to assimilate to their way of life. For over 100 years they were successful to some degree, and many Jews in Israel began to adopt Greek ways. If Hellenist culture was so attractive to the Jews because of its intellectual draw, why were the Maccabees so resistant? One would think that a mind-centered culture such as Judaism would embrace the Hellenist way as a compliment to its own. And if the Hellenists were so cultured and intellectual why did they resort to using force in the face of that resistance? One would think that an enlightened culture such as Hellenism would rely entirely on persuasion as a means of influence rather than to employ force.

To answer these questions in a nutshell, let me point out the spelling of the word Greek in Hebrew, which is Yavan. Yavan has three Hebrew letters, Yud, Vav, Final Nun. This sequence is unique in that all three letters are identical in form except that they get successively longer. The yud is a half line, the vav is a whole line, and the final nun is a line and a half. In Kabbala, Yud represents wisdom. As the leg gets longer to form a vav, that represents the influence of wisdom on life. As the leg gets longer to form a final nun, that represents wisdom being corrupted and dragged down into the nether regions of life.

In Judaism, wisdom is intended to be a spring board to reach for higher – that which is beyond rationale. The core of the soul is beyond wisdom and enables the person to connect to the essence of G-d, Who is beyond intellectual grasp.

As its Hebrew name demonstrates, in Yavan – Greek culture, wisdom is a means of achieving self-gratification. True there is great philosophy, but it also served to justify the basest expressions of human nature.

So when the Jews identified that key difference between Jewish wisdom and Hellenist wisdom they started to resist. When the Greeks realized that Mr. Nice Guy was not going to work, they slipped down from yud to vav to final nun and acted like barbaric savages to enforce their “enlightened ways” upon the Jewish people. The Jews resisted. G-d came to the rescue. The Chanukah miracles took place. The rest, as they say, is history. Have some latkes and a very happy Chanukah!

By the way, history, as they say, has a way of repeating itself. Look out for the Chanukah story playing out again in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Resolving Inner Conflict

Resolving inner conflict is an important goal. As human beings we are pulled to the allure of a corporeal life of material pursuits and physical gratification. This is bolstered by repeated societal attempts to argue G-d and the Torah out of existence. On the other hand, we have a moral compass called the soul, which has been fortified by the values and teachings of our faith and upbringing. If survival of the fittest is the rule by which the game of life is played, then we need to take one approach to life. If meaningful and G-dly living is what it’s all about, that requires an entirely different approach to life. Even if we accept that Torah is the way to go, we are still confronting the other side of our personality and the world. How do we ensure the ascendancy of the spiritual over the material, of form over matter?

Although, in this case, the battlefield is our conscience, parallels can be drawn from external conflict. Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad, was imprisoned by the Czarist government in 1798 and was released on this day, the 19th of Kislev. He recalls that he received the news of his release as he was in middle reciting a verse in Psalm 55, “He redeemed my soul with peace from the battle that came close upon me, because of the many who were with me.”

This passage became a launching point from which seven generations of Chabad Rebbes addressed the issue of conflict resolution. I would like to briefly share a teaching by our Rebbe.

There can be two ways of resolving conflict – peaceably or through battle. The conflict can also take on two forms – close confrontation or from a distance. What this passage teaches us is that the ideal way to resolve is through peace and from up close.

Battling the urges of the body and the world could be achieved by arguing point by point why the soul’s way is better. Peaceable resolution could be achieved when the force of good is so powerful that an argument is unnecessary. These two approaches reflect the two dimensions of Torah, the rational and the mystical. The rational approach uses philosophical arguments to defend the supremacy of G-dly living. That may or may not be successful in winning the battle. The mystical dimension, especially when it is fused with an intellectual dynamic (like the teachings of Chassidus), fortify a person with so much positivity and spirituality that arguments are not needed. This is called peaceable resolution of the internal conflict.

There is a risk of escapism with this approach. One might think that since the soul and the Torah are so superior to mundane life, it would be best to abandon the world altogether and live in isolation. The passage addresses by instructing that the confrontation must be from up close. We need to engage the world so that we can influence it. Escapism may resolve our personal conflict, but it will do nothing for G-d’s plan to have this world revealed as a Divine dwelling.

Finally we need to recall that to really be successful, we have to have the “many with us,” i.e. a positive relationship with others. Through love and fellowship we can accomplish much more, utilizing the power of the crowd.

Chassidim wish each other a good yomtov on this special day, which spawned over two centuries of inspiration through the teachings of Chassidus. Have a good yomtov, a good Shabbos and a happy Chanukah!

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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