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ChabadNewOrleans Blog

A Beautiful Army

In this week’s Torah portion, when reading about the Exodus, the children of Israel are called Tzivos Hashem, (literally the legions or army of Hashem). The root of Tzivos is Tzava, which we usually define as army or military legion, as in Tzahal – Tzeva Hagana L’Yisrael – Israeli Defense Force.

However, when we dig deeper into the etymology of the word, we find two other possible applications of Tzava. One (taken from Job 7:1) is a designated time or limited context. The second is related to the word Tzivyon – which means beauty or harmony.

Chassidus takes the three applications of the word and fuses them into a lesson for us in our service of Hashem.

The defining trait of a soldier is discipline. Translated into Jewish life this is what we call Kabbolas Ol – obedience to Hashem. A soldier knows that they must have heightened focus on carrying out the orders of the Commander regardless of their personal mood or opinion on the matter at hand.

Furthermore, the instructions must be carried out with precision and attention to every detail. For example, lighting Shabbat candles on Wednesday or even Friday night after sundown, is not carrying out the orders of the commander. We have to be attentive to the designated times and detailed circumstances included in the orders. It also teaches us that the our way of connecting to Hashem, is through the Mitzvahs as they are carried out in a practical fashion – within the parameters of time/space – in other words, regular everyday life.

Finally in order for an army to be successful, there must be a harmony and unity amongst the ranks. This is why we begin our morning prayers by taking upon ourselves to fulfill the Mitzvah to “Love your fellow as yourself.” When we are in harmony and feel connected to each other, the success of our mission is guaranteed.

Hashem is very invested in our success on the battlefield of life. In fact, He directs significant resources toward our path to victory. Sometimes it comes to us in the form of material resources. At times it comes to us as a new custom in Jewish practice or a discovery in the area of Torah development. At times it comes in the form of an inspiring general – a Jewish leader who is capable of uplifting the morale and energy of the troops.

This Shabbat is the 10th of Shevat, marking 71 years since the passing of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe and 70 years since his successor and son-in-law, our Rebbe, formally assumed the leadership of Chabad. Like real generals the Rebbes devoted themselves to boosting the morale of Hashem’s army and infusing us with renewed energy and devotion to the cause. May we finally realize the ultimate victory – the final redemption through the coming of Mashiach.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Person of the Year: 2448

It was the year 2448 (on the Hebrew calendar). The Time Magazine editorial board was gathered to discuss who to name as Person of the Year. The Exodus was in full throttle progression. The editor-in-chief brought up the obvious candidate, Moses. He has been a catalyst for major change in the world. He is bringing freedom to the Hebrews. He is humbling the tyrant, Pharaoh.

One snarky member of the committee interjected, “Why not consider Pharaoh? I bet you he has been on as many front covers this year than anyone else.” This sparked an outraged response. “What? Feature the villain instead of the hero? Pharaoh has been enslaving the Hebrews for generations.”

Mr. Snarky replied with smug self-righteousness, “And Moses is not a villain? Look at what he has brought upon the Egyptian citizens? Plagues and all. What have they done to deserve this? Maybe we should name the Egyptian Citizen as Person of the Year for all they have endured?”

A more level-headed member of the committee coughed politely, “Ahem, the Egyptian people have been willing enablers of Pharaoh’s designs on the Jews. Not mention the benefits they received from the slave labor. Perhaps we should think about the Hebrews as the Person of the Year? Maybe this will get a reparations discussion going in Egyptian society.”

In the meantime, someone else wanted to know why there were only male candidates up for discussion. “Maybe we should consider Princess Batya or Miriam the Prophetess?” The led to a long conversation about male privilege in society.

The religion editor suggested that the G-d of the Hebrews be featured. “First of all,” came the rejoinder, “this is supposed to Person of the Year. Besides how can we feature someone who has no image that can grace the front cover? Finally, we don’t even know if this G-d exists. Perhaps it is all a part of Moses’s conspiracy to overthrow Pharaoh for trying to kill him years ago, while blaming it on an imaginary G-d.”

The night wore on and the discussions became more heated and less practical. The production team downstairs was waiting for a decision so they could go to print. As the sun came up, the unpretentious head of the production team decided to take matters into his own hands. Time Magazine 2448 featured Moses as its Person of the Year. That decision proved correct when in the subsequent days, Moses led millions of Hebrews out of Egypt with their heads held high, followed by the dazzling crossing of the sea a week later.

In fact the Hebrews (or people of Israel) established a holiday to remember these events, where they talk about Moses, Pharaoh, Batya, Miriam, the Egyptian citizens, the Hebrew slaves, and of course, G-d Al-mighty. Indeed Passover is our festival of freedom.

Legend has it that in a room on the second story of an old building in the ancient capital of Egypt, there is a table that has a group of talking skulls around it still debating who should be the Person of Year for 2448.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Can You Opt Out Of Being Jewish?

Much of everyone’s energy this week has been focused on the COVID surge, vaccines and the unrest in Washington. So I will take the liberty of redirecting the focus away from them to something that has the potential to be more inspiring.

We began to read the book of Exodus this week. Did you know that as many as four of five Israelites did not participate in the Exodus? We think of the Exodus as being engraved into the identity of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Yet, up to 80% of them did not leave Egypt. How could this be? Why would this happen? Why was G-d so selective in determining who deserved to be liberated? Finally, and this is much closer to home, who’s to say this won’t happen again at the time of the future redemption very soon?

There were plenty of nasty folks that managed to get out. There were idol worshippers, rabble rousers and others. That sets the bar pretty low. What was wrong with the other 80% that makes them even less deserving?

The Rebbe explains, that it was the promise of liberation that Hashem made to our forefathers, which defined our loving relationship with G-d. Parents are willing to put up with a lot from their children. But if the (adult) child denies the relationship, there is not much left to do. Similarly, the 80% of Israelites that did not make it out of Egypt (they died during the plague of darkness), were the ones who did not accept Moshe’s announcement that Hashem was going to liberate them from Egyptian slavery. They refused to believe that Hashem would keep His promise to Avraham. In effect this was a denial of the relationship. So there was nothing for them.

So does that mean that in 2021 a Jew that declines to believe that Hashem will redeem us from this exile is going to face a similar fate? Emphatically not! The Rebbe goes on to differentiate between the time of the exodus and our present time. The key difference is what took place at Sinai.

When G-d declared in singular form, “I am the L-rd your G-d,” thereby designating us as His people collectively and individually, we no longer have the choice to opt out of being Jewish. We can (foolishly) choose not to do anything Jewish. But we cannot choose to not “be” Jewish. That choice was made by G-d. We can kick, scream and protest, but it will be for naught. Who we are, will either haunt us or uplift us (or a little of both,) for all time. In fact the prophet Isaiah (27:12) assures us that “you shall be gathered one by one, O children of Israel.”

So we now know that “no Jew will be left behind.” Let’s embrace that and share it with every Jew with whom we interact. This is our destiny and we should make the most of it!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Chazak - Redefining Strength

This Shabbat we conclude the reading of the book of Genesis. It is our tradition that as we conclude the reading of one of the five books of the Torah, we declare: “Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazek – Be Strong, Be Strong, and We Will Be Strengthened.”

Nine months ago, towards the beginning of the pandemic, we concluded the reading of the book of Exodus and at that time we declared Chazak from our homes. While many Synagogues have reopened to some degree, we are still far from normal (whatever that means…). Many have still not been able to return to communal Jewish life.

What this means is, that we will have declared Chazak on all five books of the Torah in this pandemic era. What kind of strength are we drawing or proffering during this time? We are all so vulnerable. We seem to be the opposite of strong. What kind of strength can we offer each other from a distance? We have zoom Shiva calls. Zoom Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and other simchas. Where is the Chazak? What is the Chazak?

And yet, who said Chazak has to be defined the way we would conventionally define it? If we have learned anything from this Covid business, it is that we have had to reframe our definitions of most things in life.

During this pandemic, Chazak is watching people be there for each other under trying circumstances. Chazak is the dedication of our healthcare heroes and frontline workers. Chazak is seeing the dynamic, ironclad faith of people whose loved ones, or they themselves, have been dealing with the worst the pandemic has to offer. Two names come to mind. Rabbi Levi Goldstein, who was touch and go for months, and today is home sharing his story of strength with others. The second is Sarah Dukes. Her husband, Rabbi Yudi Dukes, is still fighting for his life. She has been a fortress of strength for him, her family and everyone in her circle. You can search for her posts on Facebook. They are a stand-alone doctrine of faith and strength. May Hashem bring him a complete recovery speedily.

Of course, we beg Hashem to bring us the kind of Chazak that doesn’t need a magnifying glass or philosophy major to appreciate. All we want is Tov HaNireh V’Hanigleh – Open and Revealed Good. But in the fleeting phase of challenge that we face, we must draw strength from the redefined Chazak.

May Hashem bless our world with the Chazak that we can all relate to. May Hashem bring healing to all those that are ill. May Hashem send us the complete and final redemption through the coming of Moshiach.

Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazek.
Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

The First Jewish Quarantine

Malkie and I would like to thank all of you for your warm congratulatory wishes on the occasion of our daughter Sara’s engagement to Ari Rosenblum this week. We are very thankful to Hashem for continuing to bless our family so profoundly.

In true 2020 form, this simcha in our family has taken a unique twist. “Due to Covid” has become the buzzword for all that is abnormal in our lives. Well, “due to Covid” I remained on the outskirts of the celebration. I have been in quarantine for some time now and it got me thinking about the first major Jewish quarantine that is connected to this date on the Jewish calendar.

Today is the fast of the Tevet 10 – when the siege on Jerusalem began nearly 2500 years ago, ultimately resulting in the destruction of the First Holy Temple by the Babylonians. Our sages point out that the second temple was destroyed due to baseless hatred among the Jewish people. It stands to reason that this was not a new phenomenon, and that there was an element of that in the first temple era as well.

Our sages state that Hashem always sends the cure before the blow. The Rebbe points out that siege, the first major quarantine of the Jewish people (it lasted for three years), had the potential cure that could have prevented the destruction had we gotten the message.

We know very well that when people are quarantined together, there are two possible outcomes (not mutually exclusive…). One is that they will get on each other’s nerves and end up with much animosity and bad feelings. The other is that the common challenge and tight quarters will draw people closer together.

The siege on Jerusalem was Hashem was giving us the chance to draw closer to each other, leaning on each other for support in a loving way. Sadly, we didn’t utilize the opportunity and the siege led to a destruction and exile from which we are still suffering. Perhaps these quarantines are a second chance.

Yishai Ribo is an Israeli composer and musician. He wrote a song during the spring called Keter Melucha – the crown of (G-d’s) Kingship. It was a play on the term Corona as being related to crown. The pithy lyrics go through the early days of the pandemic and everything we missed – holidays, parsha readings in the Shul etc. Then he asks “what are we to take from this suffering and separation?” It can only be to give You, Your Keter Meluchah – crown of Kingship.”

So, on this day we reflect on the positive side of quarantine – our chance to finally crown Hashem as King eternally.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Chanukah has been a chocolate and vanilla swirl

These past eight days have been all over the map.

On one hand, Chanukah is the holiday of light and joy. Especially at Chabad, we take the opportunity to spread the light and message of Chanukah very seriously. We usually kick off the holiday with a wonderful celebration at the Riverwalk together with 500 fellow New Orleanians. On the other hand, this year with the shadow of COVID-19 hanging over us like a dark cloud, we had to go virtual. On the other hand, that allowed many more people to be a part of it because they were able to watch the live stream or check out the recording later. To date it has been viewed over 1250 times. https://youtu.be/WrLH0INWMLA or https://fb.watch/2sCg6mgaJG/.

On one hand, during Chanukah the first vaccines were administered to the frontline healthcare personnel. On the other hand people continue to die from this disease, including the father of a classmate and cousin.

On one hand, our whole family was together for the first time in six months. On the other hand, we all ended up in quarantine because some tested positive for COVID…

On one hand, our Mobile Menorah Parade encountered mostly empty streets due to COVID. On the other hand, a “chance” note from a reporter on my windshield, resulted in a nice whimsical story about the Mobile Menorahs. See here for the story - https://fb.watch/2sCGAKRwlu/.

So this Chanukah has been a bit of a chocolate and vanilla swirl.

But actually that’s just it. The Chanukah miracles infuse us with a message of resilience. Imagine if the Maccabees had decided that the Syrian Greek army was just too much for them to handle… Imagine if the children in Judea had decided it was just too dangerous for them to secretly study Torah in the caves and forests… Imagine if the priests had given up looking for pure oil after they hadn’t found any despite great efforts… Imagine if the High Priest had decided that one jar just wasn’t enough and they would just wait until new oil was procured…

But they didn’t and we won’t. We will persist, and we will ultimately come out on top.

Wishing you a joyous, bright and meaningful 8th day of Chanukah and Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

Becoming a Kohen

A man walked into a Synagogue and asked to meet with the Rabbi. He implored the Rabbi to make him a Kohen. The Rabbi tried to explain that you can’t just make someone a Kohen. The man begged and pleaded and offered a very significant contribution to the Synagogue for this process to happen. Finally, after realizing that the man would not relent, the Rabbi indicated that he would consider it. The Rabbi asked, “why is it so vital to you that you be a Kohen?” The man replied, “Rabbi, my grandfather was a Kohen, my father was a Kohen, I too wanted to be a Kohen.”

Obviously, this is a joke and there is no way to make a non-Kohen a Kohen. But it is really that far-fetched?

Let us consider the following passage from the Rambam, Laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years chapter 13: “Why did the Levites not receive a portion in the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael and in the spoils of war like their brethren? Because they were set aside to serve G-d and minister unto Him and to instruct people at large in His just paths and righteous judgments… Therefore they were set apart from the ways of the world… Instead, they are G-d's legion… as [Numbers 18:20] states: "I am your portion and your inheritance."

Not only the tribe of Levi, but any one of the inhabitants of the world whose spirit generously motivates him and he understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before G-d to serve Him and minister to Him and to know G-d, proceeding justly as G-d made him, removing from his neck the yoke of the many reckonings which people seek, he is sanctified as holy of holies. G-d will be His portion and heritage forever and will provide what is sufficient for him in this world like He provides for the priests and the Levites…”

Maimonides is telling us that a non-Levite or non-Kohen can reach the status of “holy of holies” (the status of a High-Priest) by choosing to devote himself to the service of Hashem. Does this mean that one must become an ascetic, and separate oneself from all worldly affairs?

The resolution to this issue is one of the cardinal principles of Chassidus (whose New Year we celebrate this Shabbat – Kislev 19). Chassidus demonstrates to us that we can engage in “worldly affairs” while still living up to the Rambam’s criteria of setting oneself aside to stand and serve before G-d, removing from his neck the yoke of many reckonings which people seek.” One who trains oneself to “know G-d in all your ways,” is capable of being engaged in every day life while still not bearing the yoke of worldly affairs. We recognize that when our striving for connection to Hashem is in the driver’s seat of the journey of life, then worldly affairs per se are not a yoke or a burden that conflicts with that connection. However when a person views “worldly affairs” as a conflict with devotion to Hashem then they serve as a burden and a yoke that must be avoided if one wishes to be a “Kohen.”

Wishing you all a Shana Tova – happy and successful new year in the teachings and ways of Chassidus, which enables us all to rise to the level of a High Priest ministering before G-d.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Rabbis or Convicts

If you were at services yesterday (or watched the livestream), you would have noticed that Tachanun (prayers of penitence) was not recited. Tachanun is omitted on the joyous days of our calendar. We did not skip Tachanun yesterday because of Thanksgiving, rather it was omitted because on that day, Kislev 10, in 1826, the second Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Dovber, was released from confinement. Just like his father (Rabbi Schneur Zalman) before him, his was falsely accused by the Czarist government of treason because of his activities on behalf of Jews in Russia and the land of Israel.

There was once a Jewish teen from a suburban family that got involved with Chabad. He got really into going to shul and loved attending classes and programs at his Chabad House. His traditional but secular parents were supportive of his quest, but really did not understand why he was so enthusiastic about his newfound community. One winter night, he tells his mom that he is going out to a farbrengen, a Chassidic celebratory gathering. She asks, “what is the occasion?” He replies, “the 10th of Kislev, the second Rebbe went out of prison.” She politely nodded and said goodbye. The following week the story repeats itself. “What’s the occasion this time?” “The 19th of Kislev, the first Rebbe was released from prison.” Her eyebrows lift in askance, but she says nothing. Two weeks later another farbrengen. “What now?” “This time it’s the 5th of Teves, the day the Rebbe won the court case over the books.” His mom says to him, “Son, I think you need to stop hanging around these Rabbis who are always either in prison or court…”

The truth is that is could seem a bit ridiculous to celebrate what appears to be an isolated incident such as the second Chabad Rebbe having a legal tussle with the Russian courts. Why is it that 200 years later, in a Shul in New Orleans, Tachanun is omitted to commemorate the occasion?

If we look at the situation from a deeper perspective, we can begin to appreciate why these dates are so significant. First of all, the arrest of both of those Rebbes constituted an attempt by the Russian government and the Jewish opposition to Chassidism, to quash and eradicate the fledgling Chassidic movement. Their subsequent release represents the survival and thriving of the movement, and everything it has contributed to Judaism and the Jewish people.

Beyond that, we have also been taught, that everything that happens in this world, is a reflection of what is going on in the supernal realms. So in fact, when the Rebbes were being tried by the Czarist government, they were simply mirroring what was going in the heavenly court. The Rebbes were on trial in heaven for their bold attempts to make the secrets of Judaism – the inner teachings of the Torah, accessible to all Jews. It was their push to accelerate the process of Redemption that was being challenged on High. Once they were exonerated below, that was a sign that on High they were also given the green light on their activities.

This scenario repeated itself nearly each generation in one form or another, as the push toward Redemption grew bolder and more intense. So we celebrate the survival of the teachings and the teachers, but we also celebrate the advancement of the cause and the push to bring Redemption for ourselves and the world at large.

L’chaim! Sing a niggun and study some of these special teachings. Be inspired by an uplifting story and commit yourself to be a part of this cosmic revolution to bring the world under the Sovereignty of the Al-mighty.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Zooming for the Glory of G-d

I am going to go out on a limb and assume that Chinese-American businessman, Eric Yuan is probably not a religious man. When he founded Zoom, he most likely did not have in mind that it was being made for the glory of G-d. It is further likely that the development of most internet technology is intended for the following two purposes - commerce and entertainment, and of course, profiting from commerce and entertainment. Did they know that deep down it was fulfilling the passage in Ethics of Our Fathers Chapter six, “Everything that Gā€‘d created in His world, He did not create but for His glory. As is stated (Isaiah 43:7): "All that is called by My name and for My glory, I created it, formed it, also I made it."?”

Now technology has been used extensively for promulgating religion and Torah teaching. Tools like email, the World Wide Web, and social media platforms have enabled promoters of Torah to reach incalculably more people than before. Video streaming platforms have propelled Torah’s teachings to the furthest reaches, geographically and conceptually. People could be wherever they were and access a class, a lecture, an inspiring video and the like.

In this COVID lockdown era, Zoom and similar technological platforms have been the lifeline for people to stay in touch with their families, companies, friends, and their religious communities. We have prayed on Zoom, learned Torah on Zoom, and attended life cycle events – baby-namings, Bris ceremonies, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, funerals and shiva calls – all on Zoom. We are so “zoomed out” that I heard someone mention the other day that instead of saying Zei Gezunt (Yiddish for “Be Well”), people have been saying Zei Gezoomt…

But this past week Zoom unwittingly reached a new level of “doing the L-rd’s work.” This year’s Kinus Hashluchim (shluchim conference) was forced by COVID to be virtual. Being that the five day conference would cater to people from all time zones, it was decided to have an unprecedented element of the conference. As night fell in Australia last Saturday, a Zoom farbrengen (Chassidic gathering) began. As Shabbat ended in each time zone, more and more people joined from their respective locations. It was intended to last for 23 hours, until a few hours after Shabbat ended in Hawaii, the last Chabad location on the spectrum. But something unique happened. As Hawaii was wrapping up, Australia and the Far East were waking up and the rejoined. Then Asia and Europe jumped back on when they woke up. By the time it was Sunday morning in New York, the Farbrengen was still going full force. When Zoom’s maximum of 1,000 participants was exceeded, a link was created to allow others to watch a streaming link of the event. The spontaneous global conversation just kept going and going. People logged in when they had an hour or two and continued to inspire each other. It came to an end last night after 130 hours of non-stop farbrengen. As Shabbat was approaching in Australia, it was time to wrap it up.

I have no doubt that the name of Hashem was glorified this week like never before, by this beautiful display of unity, love and ongoing inspiration. Eric Yuan, you da man. You just need to figure out how to allow more than 1,000 devices to login at the same time. Of course we look forward to the time when we will be allowed to gather in person. But in the meantime, this global 5 day farbrengen was like no other!!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

The Future is Now and Forever

I recently read an interview with Michael J. Fox, whose foundation has raised nearly one billion dollars for Parkinson’s research. He was talking about his new book is entitled The Future is Now, and this quote jumped out at me. “The good thing is that there’s always a future. Until there isn’t. The future is the last thing you run out of. The moment until you shut down you’ve got a future, and then you don’t.”

Clearly his intent is that one must make the most of the present thereby ensuring that one’s future is meaningful and productive. (All a play on the “Back to the Future” concept.) This is a powerful message coming from a person that has successfully battled a debilitating disease for three decades. Each of us can take some inspiration from his rallying cry.

Yet, as I read the quote, something left me with a sense of discomfort. I thought about it and then realized that what bothered me was the notion that at the moment of death one ceases to have a future. Contrast that with the name of this Parsha – Chayei Sarah – the Life of Sarah, which opens with her passing, and yet is called “The Life of Sarah.” Our sages derive from this, that the righteous even in death are considered alive. How is this so? Because their lives are not defined solely by their physical accomplishments and presence, rather, their lives are primarily defined by the spirit. It is the message and example of faith and love and awe of Hashem along with caring for others, that lives on long after their physical death.

Sarah our matriarch passed away nearly 4,000 years ago, and yet millions, if not billions, of people continue to live with and be inspired by her exemplary life. Little children are familiar with her life story as if she were a grandmother living in their homes. Adults analyze and try to find applications from her wise words as though they had just heard her speak them on a Zoom event last night.

So to reframe the quote, “The good thing is that there’s always a future. And then there continues to be. The future is the thing you never run out of. The moment until you shut down you’ve got a future, and then you continue to have one.” The only condition for achieving this is that you have to live the kind of life that lives on even after it is over. The Future is Now, and forever.

This weekend, Shluchim, emissaries of the Rebbe worldwide are joining in a virtual Kinus – conference. The Kinus is usually held in person and includes the largest sit down kosher dinner in New York City. This year, the pandemic has moved the Kinus online. As always, we invite you, our communities and friends, to join us for the Virtual Grand Event, scheduled to begin at noon on Sunday (CST). You can watch it at www.chabadneworleans.com/kinus.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

Start the Healing

This has been a contentious week for the American public. No matter which candidate you support, there has been enough frustration to go around. The contentiousness has highlighted the ferociousness of the suspicion and disdain with which the sides regard each other. The accusations and attacks on the character and ideals of the other party have been elevated to a frenzied pitch.  

Take all of that into account. Reflect on how unworthy you think the other side is. Consider how wrong you believe them to be and the kind of destruction of our society that you envision coming from their approach to governance.

Now that you have really brought into sharp focus how deplorable and contemptible they are, consider the following moral dilemma. If you got word that G-d had a plan to rid the planet of the scourge of your opponents by bringing death upon them all, how would you react?  

We all share a forefather, Avraham, who was faced with this very dilemma. He was informed by G-d, that his neighbors to the east, the inhabitants of Sodom and Amorah, were being singled out for obliteration. These were the most deplorable people around. They were immoral on every level and by every definition. The legislated meanness into their laws. They outlawed helping others. They killed people at whim. The boundaries of morality within human intimate relationships were entirely eradicated by their society. They took pleasure in the pain of others. One might think that Avraham would throw a Sodom destruction watch party and dance a jig at the news.

Instead, he put his credibility with G-d on the line, to challenge G-d on the decision to destroy those people. He begged and pleaded with G-d to save them. Ultimately the judgement of the True Judge prevailed and they were destroyed. But Avraham goes down in history of the one who was willing to stand up and express concern even for people that were most contemptible by all standards.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. No matter what we think of the other side, they don’t sink anywhere close to the depths of depravity that was Sodom. Let’s emulate our father Avraham. Take the opportunity to reach out in true friendship to someone from the other side. Express empathy with their way of thinking even while disagreeing with them. We cannot wait for the people at the top of the ideology camps to do this for us. While that would be nice, it is unlikely. But for us regular rank and file folks, let’s begin a grass roots movement of caring for each other even when we don’t think much of the other person’s ideals. If each of us made this move, you would shocked how quickly the fissures in our society can begin to heal in a meaningful way.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Becoming a Progressive

After Zeta’s first eyewall passed over us there was a period of intense calm within the eye of the storm until the second one arrived. As we are surrounded by the chaos of so many disturbances, Zeta, Covid, the elections, the economy and whatever else may be churning up your life right now, we need to find that place that can function as the eye of the storm, within which there is intense calm. That niche is generated by our faith in G-d that somehow all of this is for the best and we are in His hands.

Yesterday morning I was outside surveying the area around our home and a neighbor passed by. Of course, we got talking about Zeta and how busy this hurricane season has been. She is an academic with a background in linguistics. She jokingly observed that people think Zeta is the last letter of the Alphabet because of the Z, but it is an early letter in the Greek alphabet. I said that for those of us that read Hebrew we know that Zeta is like the Zayin and there are many more letters to go. We both laughed and emphatically expressed the hope that we are not going to read it that way with this year’s storm names.

With the elections looming this week, there is a lot of talk about progressives. What does it mean to be a progressive? The Torah’s definition of a progressive comes from the opening verse in this week’s Torah portion. But first an intro from Zachariah 3:7. There is a contrast between Mehalech (one who walks) and Omed (one who stands). Chassidus interprets that verse in the following manner. Omed refers to angels. They are called stagnant, or those who stand, not because they don’t move, but because they do not progress. As they are created so they remain. Mehalech refers to the soul of man. We have the potential for growth and progress. How does one live up to the moniker of Mehalech?

In this week’s Parsha, G-d tell Avraham, “Lech Lecha – walk, go, progress to you.” That is a strange instruction. Go to you? How do you go to yourself? The Rebbe explains that Lech Lecha is Hashem telling Avraham to become who he really is, a Mehalech, a progressive. There are two thrusts in this journey of becoming a progressive. One involves self-discovery – identifying the G-dly speak within us and channeling that power into serious growth and development. The other thrust is applying your self-discovery into change that benefits others and advances Hashem’s plan.

We have been a nation of Torah true progressives for nearly 4,000 years now. Just a little further and we will propel our world over the threshold of redemption!!

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom – a Shabbat a good health, safety, (hopefully electricity,) and tranquility!

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Stop! Please Stop!

In a democracy of any sort, elections are very important. Every four years we are told that this upcoming presidential election is more important than ever. Perhaps this time that is not even an exaggeration. Each of us has a constitutionally protected right to express our political opinion and to advocate for it in discussion with others. I am all for people exercising that right.

However, I (along with billions of other humans) have been observing a disturbing trend when it comes to political discussions. This trend holds true regarding in-person discussions, but it even more prevalent and virulent when it comes to online discussions, and on social media. Instead of the discussions remaining in the realm of ideas and concepts, they are increasingly turning into personal conflicts. I get that people are passionate about the issues and their candidates, but that does not give license to wholesale insult anyone that disagrees with you. This is a massive problem, even among close friends and family members. People are unfriending each other, not just on Facebook, but in real life.

There is a verse in Isaiah (55:7), “Let the evil one abandon his way and the man of iniquity his thoughts.” The Tzemach Tzedek (third Chabad Rebbe) taught, that the Hebrew word for iniquity can also be vowelized to mean “strong willed.” A person must not go around believing and declaring that my way of understanding is the only way. We always need to consider the view of another. It does not mean we have to agree, but at least respectfully consider the other view.

We are at a point where a large percentage of those engaging in political speech on social media or elsewhere, are so convinced of the infallibility of their opinion, that they do not even give the other person the respectful courtesy of actually paying attention to what they are saying. Even as we listen to others, we are usually just absorbing their words for the purpose of a rebuttal, or even worse, to use their words against them in an insulting manner.

I am going to go out on a limb and opine, that America will survive the results of this election one way or the other (just my opinion – fee free to disagree). But the fallout over the nastiness and the divisive dialogue (not among the politicians, but) between people, threatens to have more ominous ramifications for society and humanity as a whole.

So by all means, express your opinion, advocate for your side, electioneer for your guy, and even use hyperbole or other forms of persuasion. But please, don’t get personal. Don’t insult your friend, your brother, sister or cousin, your neighbor, or your fellow occupant of planet earth.

Finally, take a moment to open your ears, your mind and your heart to the perspective of another. Two people can observe the same phenomenon and perceive it in diametrically opposite ways. Our perception may be colored by personal experience, family history, or some knowledge and insight that we possess. The other people also have compelling reasons that are driving their perception.

Remember that on November 4 (or whenever the election results are finalized) we still have to share our lives and our society with the other folks. Let us not poison our ability to do so. Concerning Torah Proverbs (3:18) states, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.” May we indeed have Shalom!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Keep on dancing with the Torah

Last weekend we celebrated Simchat Torah, the holiday that emphasizes how precious the Torah is to us. Even though the Torahs are wrapped up and covered during the dancing, indicating that we all share an equal association with the Torah, yet, the ultimate goal is to translate the celebration into a new enthusiasm for the study of Torah.

The Chabad Rebbes would make the following declaration at the conclusion of Simchat Torah: “V’Yaakov Halach L’darko – and Jacob went on his way.” This was an encouragement to take all of the inspiration of the holiday month and translate it into an energy that uplifts everyday life.

Quite often we make idealistic resolutions. The challenge is to pragmatize those ideals and apply them into action. On Simchat Torah we dream of a renewed commitment to Torah study for the coming year. Then the holiday ends and we find it challenging to make those dreams a reality. At times, what a person needs, is an opportunity to present itself that will enable one to make that transition from “if only” to “absolutely.”

I would like to share with you an opportunity here in our community to quench your desire for quality Torah learning. The Jewish Learning Institute has developed another tantalizing course entitled “Secrets of the Bible.” This course takes six intriguing Biblical narratives and dissects them using the knife of Jewish mysticism and Chassidus. Stories like Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge, Noah’s Ark, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, the Golden Calf, and the Korach Rebellion, are guaranteed to capture your attention. As always, the inner dimension of these stories will leave us with much food for thought and incisive insights into our own longing for self-improvement.

The six-week course will be offered beginning in early November at Chabad Uptown, taught by yours truly (Rabbi Mendel Rivkin), and at Chabad Metairie, taught by Rabbi Mendel Ceitlin, starting the last week of October. Each location will offer an in-person option as well as a separate Zoom option. Chabad Uptown classes will be held on Wednesdays and Chabad Metairie will hold the classes on Tuesdays. Details about registration, pricing, and exact schedules will be released in the middle of next week, G-d willing. The first class will be free and open to the public in both venues with rsvp required.

Do not let this opportunity pass you up! Don’t allow another year of empty Simchat Torah dreams to go by. Grab hold of yourself and make the commitment to participating in Secrets of the Bible this fall/winter. We look forward to sharing this adventure with you.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Don't Let the Grinch Steal Sukkot!

This Grinch named COVID-19 has stolen our Jewish holidays in 2020. None of them were able to be observed in a “normal” manner. We had solo Passover seders. Shavuot with no gatherings. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with many people avoiding in person Synagogue services. We have been Zooming all around the world without getting off of the couch for 6 months.

Now Sukkot is here. This is the one holiday that COVID cannot take from us. In fact Sukkot must be observed outdoors in the Sukkah. What we know about this virus informs us that outdoors is a safer environment than indoors. So do not allow the Grinch to steal this one from you. Be part of a Sukkot celebration. Build you own Sukkah and celebrate. Join us for Sukkah Fest (see below for details) or reach out to Chabad of Metairie for a personal visit by the Sukkah on Wheels. Let us know if you would like to get together in our Sukkah to perform the Mitzvah of Lulav and Etrog and grab a bite to eat.

There is a fellow in Brooklyn who built a Sukkah that is a block long. He is trying to help people who need a Sukkah, but due to COVID do not want to be in a small cramped environment. In fact the Talmud says that when Mashiach comes, G-d will construct a Sukkah that is large enough to hold the entire Jewish people at once.

What we take from this is that we can be safe while at the same time be united and enveloped together by our Sukkah. We made our Sukkah a little bigger in the hope that we can host people in a safe way as well.

Wishing you all a safe and happy Sukkot!
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

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