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ChabadNewOrleans Blog

Science and Faith Converge at the Doctor's Office

This past week we had the pleasure and privilege to hear from Yossi Goodman, a man with an astounding story of salvation through Divine Intervention. Briefly, Yossi was plowed over by a drunk driver going 60 MPH. He was thrown 70 feet through the air and landed in a pool of blood with his head smashed and legs and torso broken beyond belief. He was brought to the hospital where his parents were advised not to waste a room or machines by hooking him up to life support. A neurologist, who was a declared atheist, told his mother that he had never seen a case this bad and there was no hope. His parents, with the support of the community and prayers from all over the world, along with the advice and blessing of the Rebbe, elected to fight for his life. Many procedures and disheartening and scary moments later, he emerged from the danger and started to mend. He made a complete recovery, leads a normal life, ran a marathon, got married and has two children, (one of whom was born in the same hospital room in which he lay comatose) and shares his story all over the world. The only remnant of his ordeal is the mark on his throat where they punctured it to insert the tracheal tube. As he was leaving the hospital, months after the accident, the neurologist came over to his parents and declared, “I now believe there is a G-d, because medically there was no way for this to happen.”

This story got me thinking about the role of doctors from a religious standpoint. If G-d is the healer why do we go to doctors? If doctors are the healers, do they have the right to make blanket pronouncements about the case? If not, where does the doctor fit into the G-d’s plan for our health and wellbeing?

Clearly the Torah instructs us to use the services of a doctor. To quote the sages of the Talmud, “G-d gave permission to doctors to heal.” Since G-d created this world to operate within the natural order (primarily), therefore we do what we can within nature to resolve our issues. So when we are sick we seek medical care. At the same time, we believe, that just as all of nature is really the hidden Hand of G-d, so to with medical care. G-d works through the agency of the physician to bring us the blessing of healing. Since we are instructed to work within the natural order, we seek the best possible care, just like we do our best to earn a living and the like.

Within this context the role of the doctor is clearer. The doctor needs to view himself or herself as an agent of G-d. Doctors must do the best they can within nature to heal. A doctor who combines medical expertise with faith has the most optimal tools for success. I know a surgeon who has told me that at times she steps back from a procedure for a moment to say the Shema and pray for G-d’s help for success.

However, when they have exhausted the options available to them, it is not within their purview to declare that there is no hope. Rather they should say, that there is nothing left we can do medically. But G-d is not bound by the rules of nature or medicine and miracles can happen. This then is the role of prayer and good deeds for the sake of the person who needs the blessing of healing. By seeking the best medical care along with calling out to G-d for salvation we can give ourselves the best chance for achieving our goal of healing.

May we all be blessed with good health and prosperity for a long a happy life!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

Will The Real Lag B'omer Please Stand Up

Today is Lag B’omer, a day typically and traditionally celebrated outdoors. There are often bonfires and bows & arrows. Since the 1940s, the custom of Lag B’omer Parades has grown and expanded.

Lag B’omer marks the day that the plague killing 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva ceased. It also marks the day that one of his subsequent students, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, returned his soul to his Maker. On his deathbed, he instructed his disciples to mark his Yahrtzeit as a day of festivity - celebrating the teachings of Kabbala and the ascension of his soul on High.

A common modern misconception introduces a connection of Lag B’omer to another historical event – the Bar Kochba revolt in the second century. This is was made even more popular with the rise of secular Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel, when an association with historical Jewish warriors was sought.

While both Rabbi Akiva and his student Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai lived during that period, and Rabbi Akiva was, initially, a fervent supporter of Bar Kochba, drawing a connection to Jewish war heroism is a blatant diversion from what Lag B’omer is all about.

Rabbi Akiva’s support for Bar Kochba was based on the supposition that this revolt was a physical expression of the spiritual rise of the Jewish people. He even presumed Bar Kochba to be Mashiach. That support came to an abrupt end after Bar Kochba declared that “we don’t need G-d on our side. As long as G-d doesn’t support the enemy we will be ok.” Rabbi Akiva realized that the revolt was entirely divorced of a spiritual context and was therefore doomed to failure.

This is the exact opposite of the theme of Lag B’omer. Both Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon had reached the pinnacle of human spiritual achievement. They studied and taught under the most challenging of circumstances and yet, are responsible for bringing the vast body of the Oral Tradition to the Jewish people via the Talmud, Midrash and Zohar. Lag B’omer is about the powerful light of the inner teachings of the Torah. Lag B’omer is about discovering the powerful unity that Jews experience through Torah and Mitzvot. Lag B’omer is about an intensified devotion to Hashem and His purpose for our existence. Lag B’omer is about ascendancy of the spirit; the superiority of form over matter. Reducing it to a celebration of Jewish military heroics is akin to an arrow not only missing the bullseye, but missing the target altogether.

The bonfires are a symbol of the great light of Jewish mystical wisdom. The bow & arrow symbolize the righteousness of Rabbi Shimon and his followers. Jewish mystics and Chassidic masters have traditionally utilized the spiritual power of this day to perform many miracles. For the Chabad Rebbes, the blessings of Lag B’omer had a specific focus on the area of fertility. Many childless couples were blessed on this day and merited to have a child.

May we utilize this holy day properly and experience the spiritual strength it can give us!

Happy Lag B’omer and Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Positive National Coverage

We are conditioned to seeing New Orleans, and NOLA related institutions, get trashed in the national media. Well I am happy to share some positive coverage for a NOLA institution in one of the most prominent and popular Jewish websites, Chabad.org.

In connection with the 36 hour campaign that is currently running to benefit the students of Torah Academy, Chabad.org is featuring a wonderful exposure for the school and the community. It is a story that does a great job highlighting the challenges of getting the school back up and running after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, paired with the amazing current achievements of the school, along with the exciting projections for the school’s future.

The full article can be read at www.chabad.org/4012125. It is also featured in the news section below. I will be excerpting a few key passages from the article as well.

In the meantime, the 36 hour campaign to raise $255,000, has passed the 50% mark with contributions from over 300 individuals. We need each and every one of you to help us reach our goal by 9 PM this evening. Each dollar that you contribute will be tripled by a group of generous matchers. Please go to www.torahacademynola.donorzen.com to make your donation and to follow the exciting developments of the campaign. Participating in this campaign will literally, without exaggeration, help shape a positive future for our NOLA Jewish community.

Interviewed in the article are: Chanie Nemes, Yochanan Rivkin, Rivkie Chesney, Orit Naghi and Naomi Smith. Here are some excerpts. I encourage you to read the article in its entirety.

“In 2005, things were looking up at the New Orleans Torah Academy, with an unprecedented 60 children enrolled. Then came Hurricane Katrina, and everything changed. Homes, businesses, highways and schools—nothing was spared… For years, streets that had once teemed with life were lined with a never-ending supply of mold-splotched sheetrock and rotten bedding, as the city struggled to dry out, clean up and get back on its feet. The original school building was so heavily damaged by the storm that it needed to be demolished. There were hardly any students anyway; most families had moved away and never returned…

It took more than a decade of building, planning and hoping, but today the school—now located in an airy, state-of-the-art facility—has seen its largest enrollment ever and looks forward to even more children in the years to come. (CN)

“We believed that having an inviting, modern and spacious facility would attract people to the school. Five years ago, I posted on Facebook that the school could have 80 students by 2018. At the time, it seemed like fanciful thinking, but thanks to our dedicated and creative staff and lots of Divine assistance, it is becoming a reality.” (YR)

“This is a school where every child—and every parent—is important. When my son started, there were eight children in his class; now there are 14 in his kindergarten/first grade. The staff greet the children like friends because that is what they truly are, devoted to every single child.” (ON)

“I had faith from the beginning that this school was going to grow. Everything we do is research-based, and the practices are top of the line. Our wonderful staff-student ratio allows us to focus on every child, and watch them develop academically and socially. There is a very positive environment, which feels like a family. If someone needs help, there will always be someone there to help them. Larger schools cannot offer that degree of attention and customization.” (NS)

My friends, whether you know it or not, and whether you recognize it or not, Torah Academy is one of the crown jewels of our NOLA Jewish community, producing students who are committed Jews, productive citizens, and future leaders. They have a diverse student body and a devoted staff that is second to none. Simply put, the decision to invest in Torah Academy should be a no-brainer for anyone who cares about the future of our community, and who is broad-minded enough to examine the reality of what the school achieves each year.

Get involved by going to www.torahacademynola.donorzen.com and make a difference for our future.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Developing Young Supporters of Israel

One of the issues facing the Jewish establishment today is bridging the gap between young Jews and Israel. Young Jews who are socially conscious are becoming increasingly disconnected from, and even hostile toward Israel. We needn’t look further than our own community, where a group of Jews led the effort to hoodwink the city council into passing the “BDS” bill earlier this year. Beyond the open hostility, a significant percentage of young Jews are, at best, ambivalent toward Israel. They no longer see their destiny as socially conscious humans, or even as Jews, as being linked to Israel. On the contrary they (mistakenly IMO) see Israel as an aggressor whose “apartheid” policies are discriminating against the persecuted minority. Pride in Israel’s accomplishments in all areas of human advancement, has been replaced by shame at the supposed colonialist and racist methods of dealing with the issues.

While we can and should argue the issues point and by point, demonstrating how the arguments are often fallacious and misleading, the success of that approach is diminishing from day to day. They are being inundated by other view-points that are more in the vogue in today’s world, and are, by and large, tuning out the mostly impotent attempts at “hasbara.”

So what is the alternative solution? Statistics and recent demographic studies have shown, that the segment of Jewish society that is most unconditionally supportive of the Jewish right to a presence in Israel, are those who are being raised in traditionally observant environments. Why is this so?

Because this child is raised in a home and school where Israel is presented as a place that is a gift from G-d to the Jewish people. They are shown the holiness of Israel, and how it is the very place in which the narratives of the Bible occurred. They are taught the special Mitzvot connected to the land. They are exposed to the closeness to G-d that one can feel there. They are imbued with a love for the Jewish people and are thus intensely concerned with their safety in Israel. In short, they view Israel in the context of the entire Torah, Mitzvot and Jewish religion.

So Israel is not just a beautiful place with advanced technology, gritty determined inhabitants and an underrated military. It is the holy land. Israel is not just a place with great beaches and disco clubs. It is the only place where certain Mitzvot can be performed. Our right to the land is not just because of a nationalist ideal for Jewish self-determination, the holocaust, and a few successful wars. It is ours because Hashem gave it to our ancestors and us as an eternal heritage. Israel is not just a place that has a crazy political system, competitive universities and western looking cities. It is the land where thousands of years of Jewish history as recorded in the Torah took place. One can walk where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob walked. One can move over the very earth that Kings David and Solomon traversed. One can be on the spot where prophets like Samuel and Isaiah gave over the word of G-d. Once can travel the roads upon which thousands of our ancestors journeyed to make their thrice annual pilgrimage to the Holy Temple.

This doesn’t mean that they will be 100 percent supportive of every policy of the Israeli government and society, nor should they. But it does likely mean that they will be 100 percent supportive of the Jewish connection and right to a safe and protected presence in Israel, as they should.

Here in New Orleans there is a school that is educating and developing children in this manner. I am proud to be a parent of children attending Torah Academy. In my estimation, there are few more worthy areas of investment of Jewish funds than the area of authentic Jewish education. You want to make sure that there are youth supporting Israel? Support Torah Academy! You want to make sure there are young people committed to Jewish continuity? Support Torah Academy.

Torah Academy is going to be having an exciting fundraising campaign next week. There will be a 36 hour push, called #ThinkBigNola, during which every dollar contributed will be tripled by a group of generous matchers. Running next Wednesday and Thursday. Please look out for more information by email and on social media. If you would like to pre-pledge to the campaign or volunteer at the campaign center, please contact Rabbi Chesney at ychesney@torahacademynola.com or 504-456-6429.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Thoughts on Holocaust Remembrance

Yesterday was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. I would like to share two brief thoughts on Holocaust Remembrance.

1. When the state of Israel established Yom HaShoah, they chose this date because it coincided with the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. At that time, the prevalent attitude in the fledgling state was to lionize those heroes who fought back against the Nazis, whilst at the same time there was a subtle shame and even disdain for those that went to their deaths “like sheep.” I believe this attitude has shifted somewhat over the years, but it still warrants addressing.

Those that fought back and took Nazis down with them, or even escaped and survived, are certainly heroes to be admired. This does not mean that the others, the six million “kedoshim” holy souls, were just sheep who were led to slaughter. There are many types of heroes. Some are heroic on the physical plane, and some on the soul plane. There are countless stories of heroes who kept their heads held high and refused to be degraded to the subhuman level. How many heroes in the camps gave their last crust of bread or drop of energy to uplift the spirits of those around them? How many heroes went to their deaths declaring their faith in G-d and redemption in the face of the horrific efforts to break their spirits? How many heroes risked their own wellbeing to save someone else from harm? How many heroes brought the light of mitzvot and holidays to the darkest corners of the planet? Rather than being ashamed, G-d forbid, of those who perished without taking up arms to fight, we must remember them with pride and learn from their example of how to make the most of life, down to the very last breath.

2. Contemplating the tragic events of the Holocaust has sometimes led to people questioning the existence of G-d. The question of how could G-d allow the Holocaust to happen, is very valid. It is an issue that cannot and should not be justified in any way. Indeed, I do not believe that any human being can supply a satisfactory answer to this question. Yet, at the same time, I believe that events such as the Holocaust should actually reinforce our belief and awareness of the existence of an Omnipotent and Al-mighty G-d.

In all of the arguments about proofs for the existence of G-d, the most powerful one, in my opinion, is the survival of the Jewish people. By every natural law our people should have long been relegated to the ash-heap of history. Throughout the four millennia since the founding of our people, the most powerful nations attempted to annihilate us. As a matter of fact, every several hundred years a third of our people were massacred. We were only sovereign in our land for a sliver of our history. The rest of the time we have wandered and have been tossed from place to place, hated and oppressed. We were blamed and persecuted for every problem that the world faced. Yet somehow, despite all of the challenges, we have survived and even thrived. Some of our greatest contributions to society and to Judaism came under extreme difficult circumstances. The only valid and logical explanation is that there is a G-d and He has a vested interest in our survival. This should give us hope and encouragement as we move forward to what we anticipate to be the brightest chapter in our story, the imminent redemption!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

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 rabbi@jewishlouisiana.com.

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 www.chabadneworleans.com/donate. And now, we are off to Pesach!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

#CountYourBlessings

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, www.JewishLouisiana.com/purimparty.

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: www.facebook.com/events/1562781920481954 or www.chabadneworleans.com/233821.

Happy LOL and Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

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