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Loving With All Your Very

In the Shema there is a passage (from this week’s Parsha) that states, “You shall Love Hashem your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”

The obvious question is why the need for three sets of instructions to love G-d? There must be something in “soul” that is not covered by “heart,” and likewise with the third one.

Tangentially, the word for heart, is actually written in a way that implies two hearts. From this our sages derive that we must train both our “hearts” – our drives – the mission-oriented drive as well as the self-oriented drive, to love G-d. We do this by bringing our self-oriented drive to recognize that loving G-d is really good for me.

What about soul? This means that if we are faced with the choice between rejecting G-d or losing our lives, we must be willing to give up our very lives for G-d. Sadly, our history as a people has millions of Kedoshim - people who sanctified the name of G-d through their deaths.

So, the elephant in the room is, what can top giving your life for G-d? What could “loving with all your might” possibly add to the love demonstrated by literal self-sacrifice?

The Hebrew for might in the passage is Meod. The literal translation of Meod is very (much). When we say “with all your might” that means with everything you’ve got. Now, while giving up life itself for G-d is a very lofty level of devotion, at the same time, it is a split-second decision and implementation. Living for G-d, on the other hand, requires a stick-to-itiveness that could be even more challenging. It means maintaining a level of intensity that goes on and on, day to day, week to week, and year to year.

Loving with all your “very” is where the rubber meets the road on the path toward ultimate redemption.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Energized, Not Paralyzed

This weekend is Tisha B’av, a day of mourning and commemoration for the Jewish people. Negative emotions can be paralyzing or energizing. The only type that is appropriate for us to experience as Jews in the mourning period, is the energizing type. Here are a few articles from previous years that revolve around this approach to Tisha B’av.

Dancing Over Destruction: www.chabadneworleans.com/templates/blog/post.asp?aid=1203266&PostID=83695&p=1.

Spin Doctor or Purveyor of Truth:
www.chabadneworleans.com/templates/blog/post.asp?aid=1203266&PostID=61791&p=1.

Happy Tisha B’Av:
www.chabadneworleans.com/templates/blog/post.asp?aid=1203266&PostID=39104&p=1.

Getting Comfortable with the Beit Hamikdash:
www.chabadneworleans.com/templates/blog/post.asp?aid=1203266&PostID=23751&p=1.

Is it Time to Move On:
www.chabadneworleans.com/templates/blog/post.asp?aid=1203266&PostID=18494&p=1.

May we channel this energy into the actions needed to bring us from mourning to joy, from exile to Redemption with the rebuilding of our Holy Temple speedily.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Judaism is NOT a Religion

A few weeks ago, I was invited to sit on a panel at an event for wedding coordinators, caterers, and event planners. They were looking to get insights into various cultural traditions that they should be aware of when planning an event. One of the questions posed to the members of the panel (consisting of representatives of religious faiths and members of the industry), was about the involvement of the clergyperson in the wedding beyond the ceremony.

They were surprised to learn that a Torah observant Rabbi would have input into additional facets of the wedding beyond the ceremony. This led to a lengthy discussion about Kosher catering, and a shorter, but eye-opening (for them) discussion about modesty and how it impacts the dancing and other elements of the wedding.

The truth is that this is part of a broad idea that Judaism is not a religion, but rather a way of life. Religion (as per the dictionary) is a “system of attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” It is entirely conceivable that one’s religion has little say on many aspects of a person’s daily life. Indeed, this is the case for a large number of religious adherents around the world.

Judaism was originally conceived as a way of life. Our doctrine, the Torah, informs every single aspect of a person’s day, from the moment we awaken to the way we go to sleep. There is a Torah way to experience every single element of life, from birth (and even conception) to death and beyond. It addresses what we wear and how we wear it. It addresses what we eat and how we eat it. It addresses what we do for a living and how we do it. It addresses what our family life looks like and how we live that way. And so much more.

In fact, so little of Judaism takes place in the Synagogue, that it could hardly be regarded as the center of Jewish life. At the most, a person might spend a few hours a day at Shul (assuming they attend all three daily services and have a study session or two). So, what is the center of Jewish life? I would argue that the center of Jewish life is wherever one is at any given time. Because at every moment of life, one is engaged in Jewish living. If it had to be pinned down to a location, it would have to be the home, the place one spends a plurality of one’s time.

Stop being religious and embrace Judaism, the treasured way of life with which G-d gifted us at Mount Sinai over three thousand years ago.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

PS: It was brought my attention that last week’s blogpost (www.chabadneworleans.com/templates/blog/post_cdo/aid/1203266/postid/109976) may be perceived as insensitive to people with medical dietary restrictions. It was definitely not my intent to alienate anyone and I apologize that my words came across as so. In fact, I considered this possibility, though apparently not for long enough. I myself have medically related dietary limitations, and close relatives with diabetes and celiac disease. Clearly, I should have been more thoughtful in choosing the phrasing for this message. (Mock shrimp anyone?)

Gluten Free Judaism

What happens when many of the ingredients for a good dish are off the table for whatever reason? Usually, the improvised replacements don’t live up to the billing and the dish is hardly worth eating. C’mon, if it is gluten free, sugar free, and free of whatever else, is it not then going to be taste free?

In this week’s Torah portion, we find Moshe beseeching G-d to appoint a successor so that the Jews are not left as “flock without a shepherd.” Immediately following this, G-d commands Moshe to instruct the Jewish people regarding the daily, Sabbath, and holiday offerings. Here is how it is phrased, “Command the children of Israel and say to them: My offering, My bread for My fire offerings, a spirit of satisfaction for Me, you shall take care to offer to Me at its appointed time.”

Rashi offers an interpretation from the Sifri Midrash of the juxtaposition of these two narratives by employing an analogy. A princess was on her deathbed. She begged her (commoner) husband to take care of the kids when she is gone. He replies, I want you to instruct the kids to take care of me and not disgrace me. Moshe (the princess) begs G-d (the husband) to take care of the kids (the Jewish people) by ensuring that they have a caregiver. To which G-d replies by asking Moshe to instruct the Jewish people to “take care of Him” by bringing the offerings.

The Rebbe points out that by employing the analogy of a commoner husband for G-d, the Sifri is emphasizing the idea of how much G-d “wants/needs” the relationship with us. Calling the offerings “My bread” implies that G-d “wants/needs” His relationship with us, like a human being needs food to survive. The offerings represent the human devotion to the will of G-d, causing G-d to declare, “A spirit of satisfaction for Me, that I spoke, and my will was fulfilled.”

What happens when the ingredients are off the table? We no longer have a temple and the offering have been discontinued for two millennia. Our sages state, that the set time for prayer has taken the place of the offerings. Isn’t that as tasty gluten free, sugar free, dairy free blintzes?

To which Hashem replies, “Absolutely not!!” Our humble prayers of 2022 are as desirous and fulfilling to Hashem as the offerings of the Temple era. Whether it is a simple Mincha on a Wednesday afternoon or the Neilah prayer on Yom Kippur day, Hashem looks with eager anticipation as we take the opportunity to engage in our relationship with Him. So if we are ever feeling inadequate or dispensable, we should remember how much Hashem values our simple prayers as we connect with Him.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Are You Exhausted or Unmotivated?

Does this happen to you as it happens to me? At times I will consider making a commitment to learn something or do something Jewish that requires significant effort. It may be something that means getting up real early or staying up later than usual. Perhaps it is something that pushes me to the limit of my intellectual capacity, or out of my comfort zone in some other way. As I consider it, I will often conclude that I am too exhausted to undertake this commitment. I don’t have the head or the emotional capacity to take the plunge. Am I exhausted or unmotivated?

However, I notice that when the same effort is required for something else in life, be it recreational, professional, or the like, those same considerations don’t seem to be as disturbing. All of a sudden, the exhaustion is a non-factor.

The Torah highlights two figures who “rose early in the morning” and saddled their own donkey to take an important journey. What moves an important personage to push himself beyond his normal limits, even engaging in a task that is beneath his station? Avraham displays commitment and enthusiasm to fulfill the will of G-d (at the Akeidah). The sages comment that love for Hashem motivated him go above and beyond reasonable expectation. Bilaam displays commitment and enthusiasm to engage in his favorite pastimes, hating Jews and amassing wealth. The sages comment that his hatred of Jews and love of money motivated him to go above and beyond reasonable expectation.  

Now let’s bring this back to my opening scenario. What would I need to be more like Avraham and less like Bilaam? I would need to change my value system so that my love of Hashem and enthusiasm for Judaism is as strong as my desire for material gain and pleasure.

As we strengthen our values, we will find ourselves with more motivation for the things that are truly important.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Torah is Neither Blue Nor Red

The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe was asked which of the two politico-economic systems that were prevalent in his time were aligned with the Torahs view. His profound response should be very instructive in our current situation. Neither system is aligned with Torah. Each system has positive elements, whose truths can be traced to the Torah. Each system also has elements that are not in consonance with Torah and, as such, are not positive.

Our country is raging with debate over political issues. Folks are very passionate about their views. As Jews, we sometimes attempt to invoke Judaism or Jewish values as we defend our views. But we must remember that by and large (nearly across the board) no political view is completely aligned with Torah, even on a single issue, how much more so in the full picture.

I have little patience for the rush to quote a nuanced passage in the Talmud or Jewish law about a topic, while roundly demonstrating indifference or even disdain, for much of what Torah represents. This is true on all sides of the political spectrum.

The Rebbe often points out that Torah is described in three ways. Torat Chaim – the Torah of life, Torat Emet – the Torah of truth, and Torah Ohr – the Torah of light. As we sift through the multitude of opinions and views on the many issues being debated in our society, it is vital that as Jews we recognize that our allegiance is not to a political party or philosophy. Rather our devotion is the truth, light and life that emanates from Divine Wisdom.

The Torah is our tree of life, our pillar of truth, and the illumination of our path. Everything else is like a radio with a lot of static. Once in while you hear something useful, but otherwise it is just background noise.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

What is Jewish Leadership?

This Shabbat we mark 28 years since the Rebbe’s physical presence was taken from us on the 3rd of Tammuz. There are several Hebrew terms that are used to depict a Jewish spiritual leader. One of them is Nassi. That same term is used in modern Hebrew for president. It was also used to describe the tribal leaders during biblical times. However, the most prominent application of the term was when it was used to describe the chief of the Sanhedrin and final arbiter of Jewish law. Of the more famous examples of this is Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi, the redactor of the Mishna.

The etymological root of the term Nassi, is related to the Hebrew word for elevate or uplift (nasso). In that sense, the role of the Nassi is to elevate and uplift each and every member of his people. One of the mystics points out, that the letters of the words Nassi are an acronym for the phrase, “Nitzotzo Shel Yaakov Avinu” – a spark of (the soul of) our forefather Jacob. It this context, the Nassi is the successor to Yaakov as the leader of the Jewish people. Why Jacob and not Isaac or Abraham? The Rebbe explains, that both Isaac and Abraham had sons that did not end up following their example. Jacob, on the other hand, had a full compliment of children that followed his path in life. This, the Rebbe points out, is the mark of a true Nassi. One whose influence elevates and uplifts Jews from across the entire spectrum of our people.

The Rebbe embodied this throughout his decades of leadership. The last 28 years have demonstrated that the Rebbe’s influence on the Jewish people and humanity as a whole, continues to increase in strength and in scope.

May we soon merit the realization of the Rebbe’s vision for the time of goodness and G-dliness for all people in the Era of Redemption through the coming of Mashiach.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Don't Clog the Aisle

This week I had the pleasure of attending my nephew, Mendel’s wedding in New York. It was a beautiful simcha; and it was great to catch up with so many relatives and friends. Unfortunately, that pleasure was accompanied by the agony of a commercial flight. Right now, the friendly skies have become quite nasty. It is rare to have a trip go smoothly with no mishaps. Seems like every flight is either delayed, cancelled, or makes unscheduled stops. So, flying home last night, our flight was delayed due to staffing shortages in the airport and then again due to overcrowded runways. We ended up leaving an hour and a half late (which is relatively minimal) and arrived at MSY close to 1:00 am.

Now there is a protocol as to how to deplane, from front to back. There is a logic to this system as it allows for the most efficient use of the aisle. We had some people jump up as soon as the plane came to a halt and run up the aisle from the back towards the front. Of course, they did not make it all the way up, they got held up at row 17. So now instead of the people sitting in the aisle seats having the ability to stand and retrieve their bags from the overhead bins, they were jostling with these interlopers who were clogging the aisle. This resulted in the deplaning process taking longer than it should have.

These people most likely did not have insidious designs on messing up everyone’s night more that it already was. Chances are they were simply not considering the impact of their actions on others. To them, all that mattered was getting off the plane as soon as possible. But that lack of intentionality in their choice, messed things up for everyone.

This reminded me a of a story about the Baal Shem Tov. During a journey he once approached a Synagogue to enter for prayer. He stood at the door of the empty Shul and declared that the room was too full for him to enter. He then approached a bustling Synagogue and told his disciples that there was plenty of space to enter. When asked for an explanation, he explained: “When people pray without intention (kavana) the prayers have no “wings” to propel them heavenward. They remain stuck in the Synagogue, taking up space. Now, when people pray with “kavana,” those prayers soar to G-d, leaving plenty of room for more prayers and the people who offer them.”

This teaches us the significance of intentionality. Proper orientation of our actions through intent, prevents chaos and increases productivity on every level. This is certainly true when it comes to our relationship with Hashem.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Making Torah Personal - A Tribute to Richard Stone

In anticipation of Shavuot last weekend, we were planning the traditional all-night learning schedule. I was being encouraged to consider a theme for the event, around which all the presentations would revolve. Schematically this is a good idea. For some reason I was resisting the idea and I could not put my finger on why I was so reluctant. As I was introducing some of our presenters on Saturday night, it hit me. I invited people to share what they were passionate about in Torah, which would hopefully be interesting to others.

During our prayers we recite, “grant us our portion of Your Torah.” This implies that each of us has a part of the Torah that is “our portion.” When a person is drawn to a particular theme, section, or topic in the Torah, it may very well be because this is their portion. The enthusiasm we experience over our portion, can be shared with others in a way that can be interesting and inspiring. Of course, there is room for thematic programming. Occasionally it is good to allow the organic attraction to a something specific be in the driver’s seat.

Last week we learned of the passing of Richard Stone. Richard was a favorite native son of the New Orleans Jewish community, despite moving away in the 1960s to attend Harvard. Much has been written of his many accomplishments, and there were many. A full obituary can be read at: https://www.jns.org/richard-stone-79-attorney-educator-and-consensus-builder-of-american-jewry/.

I would like to share three things on a more personal note, one more personal than the next. Richard retained a profound interest in the New Orleans Jewish community. Family ties brought him to New Orleans often, and he was deeply entwined in the developments of our community. He had a strong sense for picking up nuance, and he did his utmost to be engaged in the community across the entire spectrum.

He was particularly proud of what Chabad of Louisiana was accomplishing in the community. As a friend and supporter of our work, he served as the keynote speaker at the 25th anniversary celebration of Chabad in Louisiana. During many of his visits he would come by, and my father and he would spend hours conversing. He also advocated for us in conversations with others.

Finally, years ago, my grandfather was dealing with a complicated legal matter in connection with his business. He wrote a letter to the Rebbe with a request for a blessing and guidance on how to resolve the issue satisfactorily. The Rebbe advised him to find an “orech din yedid” – an attorney who is a friend. I interpret that to mean someone who will take personal interest in the issue, beyond just as a professional matter. My grandfather turned to my father for a suggestion. My father had become quite friendly with Richard Stone, who was an expert in that area of law, and reached out to him about the case. He took the case and handled it as a real friend. This cemented the friendship even more and my grandfather was grateful to him until his last day. Richard mentioned to me on many occasions that he was honored by the moniker that the Rebbe used, Orech Din Yedid, and he was enthusiastic about the friendship and closeness he felt to my grandparents and our family.

Our heartfelt condolences to his children, siblings, and their families. He will be missed. May his memory be a blessing for all who knew him.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

A Rendezvous With G-d

Many couples like to travel down a nostalgic path as they reflect on the journey that is their relationship. They choose to revisit a location that was significant in that journey. It might be the place where they first met, or perhaps the site of their wedding, or the spot of their honeymoon. Going back to that space, brings up the memories of what drew them together, and reinforces their connection in the present.

As Jews, we practice this regularly in our relationship with G-d. Many of the holidays and rituals are symbols or commemorations of particular aspects of that connection. Tefillin is often compared to a wedding ring, the symbol of our love and devotion to G-d. Pesach would be our “first date.” Shabbat reflects on G-d’s unique love for us. A Mezuzah can be similar to a photo of our beloved hanging in our home.

Shavuot is our anniversary. At Sinai we stood “under a Chupah” with G-d and committed to each other in an eternal covenant. Each year on Shavuot, we “revisit the spot” by reading the Ten Commandments and the narrative of Revelation at Sinai.

R’ Isaac Luria, the Arizal, takes this a step further. Commenting on the verse in Esther (9:28), “And these days shall be remembered and celebrated throughout every generation,” he said, that we do not merely remember and celebrate, we actually reexperience. Chassidus expands this idea in that as we reexperience each year, we take it to a new level. So, we are not just nostalgically reflecting on something that happened in the past, we are experiencing it in a way that is unprecedented. This year’s “rendezvous with G-d” will be more intense and passionate than ever before.

Shavuot begins tomorrow (Saturday) night. Make the most of this year’s opportunity to take our relationship to new heights. Participate in the all-night learning. Come hear the reading of the Ten Commandments on Sunday. Savor a piece of cheese cake (wedding cake)! What we invest in this rendezvous with G-d, can have yearlong positive reverberations for us!

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Shavuot!
May we merit to receive the Torah in a deeply meaningful and joyous manner!
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

A Tribute to My Aunt, Sima Karp

This is one of the more challenging posts that I have written. How do I compose a memorial tribute for an aunt who was only eight years older than me? My father’s extended family is uniquely close. Our grandparents advanced the ideal of a close family as something very important to them. To give you an idea, this week after my aunt Sima’s passing, my son in Tel Aviv was having a hard time coming to grips with it. His study partner, noticing that he was having a hard time concentrating, asked him what’s going on. When Sholom told him about the loss in the family, he couldn’t understand why the passing of a great-aunt would be something so impactful.

As a teenager, Sima was the fun aunt that came to New Orleans for summers to work in Camp Gan Israel. When I moved to New York for school, we shared time in my grandparents’ house. After her wedding, as her family grew, she moved into a home across the street from my grandparents, and we saw each other all the time. When I got married, she took a real interest in Malkie and our family. As our children grew up and went to New York for school, Sima very graciously opened her home to them and took the initiative to make sure that they were ok. When we were planning the weddings of our daughters, Sima was an immensely helpful resource. She guided us through the process on many levels. Just three months ago, while in the midst of a fierce battle with a horrible illness, she heard that our daughter Sara gave birth. She called Malkie to find out what she could do to help Sara. Only when Malkie assured her that she was coming to New York to be with Sara, did Sima relent in her efforts to help.

I would like to share three (of many) things about her life that are inspiring. Having been raised on the ideals of helping others even at the expense of one’s own comfort and convenience, Sima lived these ideals on many levels. She was a founding member of Ten Yad, an organization devoted to assisting brides, who’s families cannot lavishly provide them with their wedding and household needs. Ten Yad set the gold standard for the Mitzvah of Hachnasas Kallah, assisting brides in a dignified manner, making them feel like this important time of their life should be as stress-free as possible.  

Sima and her husband Laibel opted to have an open home. Countless people spent Shabbos at their table over the years. In addition to ample supplies of delicious food, Sima would reign over her Shabbos table while dispensing wisdom and advice, laced with humor and wit. She provided so many with a listening ear and a pragmatic guiding voice. She had a blunt style and told it like it is, but you felt with certainty that she truly cared. I watched as many of their erstwhile Shabbos guests came to the Shiva house this week, with a feeling of having lost a close loved one.

Last but not least, Sima’s devotion to her parents, my grandparents, was legendary. All of my father’s siblings were devoted children with exemplary dedication to the Mitzvah of honoring parents. Whatever the reason, Sima undertook a significant portion of their care. The dignity that she gave my grandmother, in her final years of life, even as Bubby’s health and strength were fading, was in itself a Torah lesson for all of us. Sima’s home became Bubby’s home and the home was open to all of us, the rest of the family, to visit Bubby as if it were her own house.

Hashem works in mysterious ways that we do not understand. While the blessing for honoring parents is long life, shortly after my grandmother’s passing, Sima began her own battle with the disease that would ultimately take her life. Our extended family rallied around as a support network. We collectively recited the entire book of Psalms daily for over a year. Sadly, our prayers were not answered in the way we had preferred, and Sima passed away two weeks short of her 57th birthday. Our hearts go out to her husband and children. We beseech Hashem to give them strength as they go through this challenging time.

On the day of the funeral, Malkie and I got a note from two of our younger children. They undertook to recite Sima’s chapter of Tehillim until her next birthday. They wrote that they are doing this because surely, she used to say Tehillim and now they want to say it for her, and because they know that she really cared about them. These kids hadn’t seen her since before the pandemic. The closeness they felt from years ago, left such a profound impact on them that they articulated themselves in this way.

We yearn for the time that the prophet Isaiah speaks of, “He (G-d) has eliminated death forever, and the L-rd G-d shall wipe the tears off every face.” May this take place very soon with the coming of Mashiach.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Indoctrination or Self Discovery

This morning I had the pleasure of participating in a unique ceremony. In Hebrew it is called “hachnasa l’cheder” – initiation of a child into Jewish education. There were a group of little boys who had recently had their first haircut, who were being introduced into the formal Jewish schooling. Now these kids have been in school for years, but this ceremony utilizes several rituals to impress upon the child the sweetness and goodness of Torah learning. We place honey onto the Alef Bet, which they lick and read. They read certain verses off a honey cake and eat it. Finally, they are showered with candy that “comes from” the Angel Michael, who rejoices in their accomplishments.

Some might accuse us of engaging in indoctrination of young minds into things that they cannot yet fully grasp. They argue that we should let the children grow up a bit before exposing them to religious doctrines so they can choose for themselves whether they want it. Seems like we are bribing three year old kids with honey and candy so that they associate Torah with enjoyment.

To which I say, first of all, I could think of worse things to be imparting to little kids than a love of Torah. How tragic is it that if they associate morals, kindness, and holiness, with a fun time? Imagine how terrible it would be if a generation of kids grew up believing the absurd notion that G-d actually cares about them not killing, stealing, lying and cheating. What an awful world it would be with no juvenile perpetrators of crime… How unfortunate to have children growing up with imaginary heroes like Abraham and Sarah, Moses and King David, instead of those real-life heroes like Sponge Bob and the Ninja Turtles. Let’s not forget Harry Potter and Wonder Woman (after all she is now Israeli...).

But to the heart of the matter, there is a much deeper way of understanding this idea. Indoctrination implies super-imposing something upon someone, which they did not posses previously. Kids are not born with political or societal biases. Imposing a political or societal viewpoint upon a child would be a form of indoctrination (and still I believe that parents have a right and imperative to educate their children in that form).

However, parents impressing upon their child that they are human is not indoctrination. It is simply acquainting them with the reality of who they are. Nothing wrong with telling a kid that they have blue eyes or brown hair.

For a Jewish child, learning about G-d and Torah, is simply acquainting them with their reality. Our Neshamas are who we are. It is not separate from the essence of who we are. Therefore, introducing a child, even at a very young age, to the beauty of Torah and Judaism, is simply putting them in touch with who they are. The sooner they are aware of their identity and reality, the more successful humans and Jews they will be; and the better off they will be for the rest of society.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

What if it were your kid?

I did my civic duty this month by showing up for jury duty. Yesterday was my last of the four days assigned to me. Just before noon, 50 of us were called into a courtroom for a jury selection process called “Voir dire.” The process had been going on all week and they were having a hard time finding the jurors they needed to begin the trial. It was unique in that there were three defendants, each with his own defense team. We watched as the group before us completed their voir dire, leaving a void of six jurors that needed to be filled by members of our group. Shortly after 2 pm, the prosecution began their presentation. By the time the third of the three defense attorneys got up to do his shpiel, it was already 6 pm. Knowing that there was a long road ahead of us, a few people in the group started to grumble about how late it was.

The attorney realized that he needed to get people to focus and take the process seriously, so he used the following tactic. He started addressing some of the grumbling folks and asked them if they had children. “Imagine,” he said, “if your child was taken into custody for something they hadn’t done, and the court was in the process of jury selection to ensure that they got a fair shake at justice. Would you want them to hurry up through the process because it was late and people were getting tired, hungry, and impatient? Or would you want the attorney to take his time and get the best possible group of jurors for a fair trial? Of course, for your child, you would want every effort exerted on his behalf. Well, you need to see that the same is done for the folks in this trial.”

This caused me to reflect on an idea that I heard as a young Yeshiva student. In the original Chabad Yeshiva in the town of Lubavitch, the youngest group of boys (after Bar Mitzvah) were entrusted for mentorship to Reb Michoel Bliner. He was an elderly chasid whose very presence was a valuable lesson for the boys in how to be a Jew and a chasid.

He would begin his first lesson each year with the following story. A simple villager received a letter with important information. Being illiterate, he brought the letter to the melamed (teacher), who the villagers hired to educate their children. As the melamed read the letter, the villager fainted. It contained the news of his father’s passing. Reb Michoel would ask the boys, “why didn’t the melamed, who had firsthand knowledge of the letter’s contents, faint, while the villager, who heard it secondhand, fainted?” He answered, “because it was the villager’s father.” He would then declare to the group of 13-year-old boys, “when you study Chassidus, you must approach it as if we are speaking of your own father (Hashem).” Only when you are personally invested in the subject matter, will there be the capacity for real impact.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

The "G" Word

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the event arranged by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, honoring Israel, at the Louisiana Governor’s Mansion. After the formal program, I had a chance to meet and speak to Governor John Bel Edwards along with several of my Chabad of Louisiana colleagues.​

I introduced myself as a Rabbi from New Orleans and thanked him for not being afraid to bring G-d into the public discourse. I told him that when he encourages citizens to pray, whilst addressing crises such as the pandemic or a hurricane, it makes me proud that he is the governor of my state. He modestly replied that while some may be uncomfortable with his approach, he has received encouragement from others. He then said to me that he did not expect to hear this from me, because I was the first Jewish person to ever express that sentiment to him.

Now I understand why Jews are wary of this type of thing. The separation doctrine has always been seen by Jews as a protection against the encroachment of a predominantly Christian society on Jews and other non-Christians. Sometimes that encroachment is insidious, and sometimes it’s well-meaning, yet equally inappropriate. But we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Under the banner of the separation doctrine, we have made a religion out of secularism. We cringe at the mention of G-d or prayer in a public setting. We are afraid to speak of a morality based on a Higher Power in our public discourse. We are raising generations of young people for whom obligation to G-d and Divine values, is simply not on their radar.

Removing G-d from the public discourse leads to the potential (some would argue actual) result of relegating our society to an amoral state. From there it is a short slippery slope to immoral.

Of course, we need to stand strong against a violation of the first amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Never should we be subjected to one group’s version of religion over another. But the framers were not advocating for removal of G-d from American society. Certainly, atheists or agnostics have their rights protected as well. Nobody can force them to accept or practice any religion. But, in the same way, they cannot force others to adhere to their way by removing any reference to G-d. The declaration of independence explicitly speaks of rights “endowed by a Creator.”

This is a complex issue that cannot be properly addressed in this forum. There are nuances and subtleties that must be tackled as the issue is analyzed and discussed. There are major issues being dealt with in our society as we speak, where the shadow of this issue looms large and cannot be ignored. The big picture question is, are we better off in a G-dless society or a society where G-d plays a central role, while we work diligently to ensure that one religion is not given ascendancy over another?

I will conclude with a story. Once during a journey, the Baal Shem Tov instructed his disciples to hastily exit the carriage in which they were riding. They rushed away from the wagon and their driver. A few hours later, they encountered the wagon driver and were ready to continue their journey. He asked them why they ran away. The Baal Shem Tov replied that he sensed they were in danger of being murdered. The wagon driver admitted that at the time he had been overcome with a temptation to murder them and take their belongings. It had since passed, but he wondered how the Baal Shem Tov knew. The Baal Shem Tov replied, that they had driven past a church and he saw that the driver did not cross himself, so he knew that driver was, in that moment, a G-dless person, who would stop at nothing for personal gain.

Over the millennia, we Jews have been persecuted both in the name of religion as well as by the G-dless. The answer is not as simple as the story might imply, but I hope this starts a conversation about these complex questions. I welcome any respectful feedback and dialogue.

In the meantime, Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Ukrainian Traveler's Prayer

There is an ancient Jewish custom to recite a prayer when on the road, called Tefilat Haderech – the Traveler’s Prayer.  It reads as follows:

May it be Your will, G‑d, our G‑d and the G‑d of our fathers, that You should lead us in peace and direct our steps in peace, and guide us in peace, and support us in peace, and cause us to reach our destination in life, joy, and peace (If one intends to return that day, one adds: and return us in peace). Save us from every enemy and ambush, from robbers and wild beasts on the trip, and from all kinds of punishments that rage and come to the world. May You confer blessing upon the work of our hands and grant me grace, kindness, and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who see us, and bestow upon us abundant kindness and hearken to the voice of our prayer, for You hear the prayers of all. Blessed are You G‑d, who hearkens to prayer.

If you read it carefully, you will notice that there is a line there that is to be read if one intends to return that same day, “and return us in peace.” If one is taking a longer journey, where the return will be delayed beyond that day, that passage is omitted.

Back in late February or early March, at the early stage of the conflict in Ukraine, people started to flee to wherever they could to avoid the threat of attack. Many of the Chabad Shluchim, though initially hoping that they and their families could stay, realized that it was not prudent to do so. They helped and continue to help tens of thousands of Jews in their communities to escape to safer locales. Many of the Rabbis have since returned or go back and forth between their cities and where their families are located, travel permitting.

A video circulated of one of the Shluchos (female emissary) who was in a car with her children evacuating from their hometown to safety. The mother was reciting the Traveler’s Prayer with her children. They read the first part of the prayer word for word. When she got to the passage “and return us in peace,” she hesitated and then opted to include it in her prayer. When asked why she said that passage if it was only meant for a same day turn around, she replied, “We hope that to return this very day. We have a mandate from the Rebbe here in Ukraine to take care of the Jewish community. It is up to Hashem to grant us the fulfillment of that possibility.”

While that part of the prayer was not granted, this story conveys their attitude toward the whole situation. Many people, especially those with foreign citizenship, are eager to get away and never come back. The Chabad Shluchim and their families and chomping at the bit to return to restore Jewish life to their communities. May Hashem grant that peace and safety be brought to the region so they can continue their holy mission of keeping Yiddishkeit thriving in their communities. May Hashem take us all out of exile and bring us to the Holy Land in peace with the coming of Mashiach speedily.

In the meantime let’s continue to support their work, www.chabadneworleans.com/ukraine.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

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