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Snake on a Pole

We hope and pray that everyone will get through the upcoming storm without harm. There will likely be significant rain in New Orleans on Saturday. Services will be held as usual. We do encourage people to use common sense when determining the extent of their attendance.

In this week’s Parsha we read about the plague of snakes with which the Jewish people were punished. Upon the people regretting their evil ways, Moshe prayed to Hashem to remove the snakes and this is what happened. “The L-rd said to Moses, "Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole, and let whoever is bitten look at it and live. Moses made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live.”

Incidentally, there is good reason to accept that this story is the origin of the snake on a pole serving as the symbol of healing.

The sages of the Talmud comment, “It is not the snake that healed. But rather, when the people gazed at the snake above, they turned their hearts in devotion to G-d.

If this is so, why bother with the snake altogether. Just tell people to turn their hearts to G-d. Furthermore, later in history this copper snake was used in idolatrous ways.

Chassidus explains, that the snake reminds us of the evil within ourselves and the universe. It is the symbol of the force that seeks to turn us away from the will of Hashem. By placing the snake on a pole and raising it high, this serves as a reminder to us that evil (Satan, Yetzer Hara) is actually only a force that G-d employs to give us free will. In reality the Yetzer Hara itself does not want us to listen to the temptations it places before us. When we recall this by looking at the snake raised on the pole, this inspires us to double down on our prayers and efforts of devotion to Hashem and the fulfillment of His will. This infuses us with the strength that we can and must overcome the internal and external pull to defy the will of Hashem. With the help of Hashem coupled with hard work we can succeed.

Shabbat Shalom and stay safe!
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

25 Years of Alive and Stronger

25 years is a long time. It’s long enough for a “generation” to be born and grow up. This Shabbos marks 25 years since the Rebbe’s physical passing on the 3rd of Tammuz in 1994. As I reflect on this, I realize that I was born less than 25 years after the passing of the Previous Rebbe (1950). I do not relate to the Previous Rebbe as a person who is of “my times.” Yet as I look around the world of Chabad today, I see thousands of young men and women, boys and girls for whom the Rebbe is a major presence in their lives. They live as Jews with his inspiration. Their striving in life is to fulfill his directives by devoting their lives to bringing people closer to Hashem. They are willing to pick themselves up and set up shop in some small town or remote country as the Rebbe’s Shluchim (emissaries). This is all despite the fact that they never met the Rebbe or heard him speak in person. Notwithstanding this, they relate to the Rebbe as a person who is real and thriving and whose influence on them is ongoing and transformative.

The Rebbe once expressed himself about his father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe, that although he had passed away 35 years before, over those 35 years he became more alive and stronger with each passing year. We can say with certainty that over the last 25 years the Rebbe has become more alive and stronger. The fascination of the Jewish and secular world with the Rebbe also grows. In recent weeks and days four new books were published about the Rebbe and his teachings. With titles like Social Wisdom, Positivity Bias, Dear Rebbe and One by One, they cover an interesting range of topics that the Rebbe addressed and the broad range of people with whom the Rebbe interacted.

As I watch my own children grow and develop into Chassidim of a Rebbe they never met, I realize that he is more real for them than almost any character that dominates the daily news of our society. The Rebbe’s influence on them has provided them with meaningful and hyper-focused lives. It has molded them into people who think about others even at a very young age. They have a worldview that is shaped by the Rebbe’s wide-ranging insights into every conceivable issue. Finally, they are active participants in the drive to bring our world to a state of Redemption. I am grateful to Hashem for gifting our generation with the Rebbe.

We eagerly yearn for the time when the void in our hearts and lives will be filled and we will be reunited with the Rebbe. But for the brief moment until that time comes, we plow forward to continue bringing the Rebbe’s message of hope and empowerment to the world.

Shabbat Shalom from New York
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

The Value of a Farbrengen

Anyone slightly familiar with the world of Chassidim has encountered the word Farbrengen. Farbrengen literally means a gathering – a coming together of multiple individuals. A gathering could take place for many reasons. A progrom is a gathering of people for a very negative purpose. A protest or demonstration is a gathering for a purpose whose value depends on which side of the issue one is. A sporting event is a gathering of people for a purpose that is useful bot not very lofty. A conference or trade exhibition is a valuable gathering of people for the purpose of advancing the particular field or industry. There are many more examples. What makes a Farbrengen special and why is the Farbrengen so central to Chassidic life?

The Farbrengen seeks to achieve two major goals and along the way also achieves some secondary goals. The first major goal is brotherhood and friendship. In Hayom Yom (a book of aphorisms for daily inspiration) the Rebbe cites the idea that the founding of the Chassidic movement was about love; the mutual love between the Rebbe and Chassidim and the love between the Chassidim themselves. When people gather in love to break bread and say L’chaim, this brings them closer. When you add to that, the dimension of caring for each other that arises from a Farbrengen, you increase the closeness significantly. At the Farbrengen the participants wish each other well. They may offer blessings to their fellow participants in areas of need in their lives. There is usually the signing of melodies that fosters a commonality of purpose as well. If the niggun is a joyous one the people feed off of each other’s joy. If the niggun is an introspective one, the introspection is heightened by being with others who are similarly engaged.

The second major goal is inspiration and growth in the service of Hashem. At a Farbrengen someone or multiple persons share a thought, an idea or a concept, maybe a story or a parable, all for the purpose of uplifting and elevating the participants in their devotion to Hashem through the study of Torah and fulfillment of Mitzvot. Often the speaker will inspire the listeners to seek a greater sense of refinement of character or a broader openness to caring for others. These two major goals feed off of each other, and are dependent on each other. When one senses the love of another, one is receptive to their encouragement for self-betterment. A fringe benefit of a Farbrengen is Simcha – joy. The camaraderie, the singing and the general feeling of elevation results in a deepened sense of happiness for all who partake.

Please join Chabad of Louisiana on Sunday night (June 30) at 7 pm for a Farbrengen to be held at Chabad Metairie. This Farbrengen is open to the entire community as we prepare for Gimmel Tammuz next Shabbat, marking 25 years since the Rebbe’s physical passing. Though the void is painful, the Rebbe’s leadership and inspiration continues to grow and develop as is evident by the growth of Chabad worldwide. A special video presentation entitled Hidden Treasures will be shown. We look forward to “Farbrenging” with you.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Message to the Edry Family / Practical Mitzvah

This week our community suffered yet another loss with the passing of David Edry. After a brief illness he succumbed on Wednesday evening, returning his soul to his maker. David was a quiet man but always with a wry witticism on the tip of his tongue. He loved his family and was happiest in the nest basking in the warmth of his wife, children and grandchildren, while surrounded by friends. His passing leaves another hole in the Chabad community in general and the Israeli community in particular, who are already reeling from the recent passing of David’s dear friend, Kotel Sadrusi. We express our heartfelt message of comfort and strength to Etty, Sharona, Itay and Gilli along with Luria and Sali. We are here for you in the tough times and G-d willing in the good times.

The sages teach that when a member of a group passes away, the entire group needs to be spurred to examine the areas of their Judaism that could use improvement. It behooves us as a community experiencing a series of tragedies to do the same. Each person as an individual and the community as a whole, must engage in some introspection to see how we can shape things up. Next Sunday (June 30) there will be an inspirational gathering (Farbrengen) at Chabad of Metairie in preparation for Gimmel Tammuz (see below). Let us utilize that opportunity to do some soul searching.

On a practical note, there is a mitzvah opportunity I would like to share with you. A 60 year old Jewish man who I visited in prison several years ago (before he was transferred) is being released to New Orleans in 10 days, after a decade of incarceration. He is being put onto the streets without a single shred of resources or stitch of clothing beyond what he will be wearing. I am trying to help him land on his feet. During his time in prison he has become much more Jewishly aware and observant. He wants live near a Shul so he can daven and keep Shabbos.

I am looking for partners that are willing to help out. We need help in three areas.

1. Gift cards: I want to give him a little bit of breathing space so that he can get into a shelter, purchase some clothing and food until he gets himself settled with a job and place to live. Please contact me about providing either store gift cards or prepaid debit cards to ease his transition.

2. Work: If anyone knows of an employment opportunity that would consider a former inmate please let me know.

3. Housing: If anyone knows of an inexpensive housing option within walking distance of a Shul please let me know.

In the merit of our community’s generosity may Hashem bless each of us with good health, prosperity, and a meaningful life to enjoy it. May this Mitzvah of Tzedakah be the channel for G-d’s blessing to put a stop to the rash of tragedies in our community.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Shavuwhat: 1979 - Shavuwhoa: 2019

When I was growing up in New Orleans in the late 1970s, Shavuot was not exactly the most popular date on the Jewish calendar. In fact even the more established traditional congregations struggled to get a minyan, especially if it was on a weekday. Chabad House at that time was attended mostly by Tulane students. Since Shavuot was during summer break, it was tough to gather a minyan for the holiday. In 1979, if my memory serves me right, we left town altogether for Shavuot and spent the holiday with the Rebbe in New York.

Things started to shift when the Rebbe made a strong push to have everyone attend Shul to hear the Ten Commandments, even very young children and infants. As a result an effort was made to gather people and have a minyan so that the Torah could be heard.

Fast forward 40 years to 2019. This year, thank G-d, Shavuot was celebrated with a bang in all four Chabad locations, Uptown, Metairie, Biloxi and Baton Rouge. Each with a minyan and Torah reading along with a host of programs and events bursting with people.

At Chabad Uptown we started the holiday with the dinner and all night learning. Over 60 people participated. There were programs for adults and children. The discussions included Jewish perspectives on the following topics: Astrophysics, prayer, meditation and mysticism, environmental consciousness, emergency response, DNA and Jewish peoplehood, the ethical dilemma of foreclosures, history, individuality, morality, Kabbala, love and unity, anti-Semitism as well as a number of smaller breakout group discussions. At Chabad of Metairie a similar program drew strong attendance. In Biloxi for the first time the community gathered for late night Torah study with robust and eager participation.

The next morning over 100 gathered to hear the reading of the Ten Commandments. Over 30 children stood on the podium in front of the Shul and lead the congregation in a robust declaration of the Shema and other Torah passages. The adults proudly looked on as the children, our guarantors, filed out of the Shul to receive their treats after the Torah reading. Our future is indeed bright. Chabad of Metairie, Biloxi and Baton Rouge all had record crowds clamoring to hear the reading of the Ten Commandments and grab some cheesecake or a blintz, some quiche and other dairy delights.

We have come a long way my friends. Now we must seize the momentum as we grow our Jewish communities “yiddle by yiddle.”

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Milk vs. Honey

There is a well-known Jewish custom to partake of dairy foods on Shavuot. (Think cheesecake, blintzes, quiches and ice cream… and my Ashkenazi lactose-intolerant innards are already doing summersaults…) A number of reasons are offered as to the root of this custom. One is the verse in Song of Songs (4:11), “Milk and honey under your tongue,” which is interpreted as referring to the Torah.

It occurred to me that these two foods represent two very distinct qualities of the Torah. On one hand we have milk, a substance that is best consumed while fresh. Indeed, milk that is not fresh does not taste good and is eventually unhealthy for consumption.

We say in the Shema, “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart.” Our sages comment on the words “this day,” that we must view the Torah as having been given to us today. In other words the Torah must always be fresh. There is a never a day-old Torah. There is only the Torah of today. This is reflected in the blessing recited before an Aliyah where we refer to G-d as “Notain HaTorah” the giver (present tense) of Torah. We must always see Torah as fresh and relevant. It should always be current and exciting for us to study the Torah and practice its teachings.

On the other hand we have honey, a substance that if stored properly can last for a very long time, even centuries long. The experts claim that honey need not have an expiration date. This represents another quality of Torah; that it is intended to be applicable at all times. There is no “best if used by” date on the Torah. In 5779 (2019) it is as applicable and pertinent as in 2448, which was 3,331 years ago.

While these two qualities seem to be opposites, in fact they complement each other. One for whom the Torah is always fresh, will also see the Torah as eternally applicable. One for whom the Torah has no expiration date, will always seek to discover fresh relevance in the Torah.

When the fresh milk of Torah paired with the long-lasting honey of Torah are “under our tongues” this is the ultimate experience of the holiday of Shavuot, when we relive the giving and the receiving of this priceless gift from Hashem.

May your milk always be fresh and your honey enduring! And by the way, the Torah has no recommended calorie limit either… so “taste and you will see that Hashem is good.”

Happy Shavuot and may we merit to receive the Torah with joy and inner meaning.

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Divine Wisdom for Dummies

Do you remember when the “for dummies” series and “the complete idiot’s guide series were all the rage? Like “Windows for Dummies” or “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Calculus.” We are about to celebrate a holiday during which the very first “for dummies” or “the complete idiot’s guide” book was released.

I refer of course to Shavuot, the festival that celebrates the giving of the Torah. Torah is the single greatest gift bestowed upon humanity. There are many facets to the Torah that make it unique and inestimably valuable. To name a few: It furnishes us with the tools for purposeful living. It provides us with the means to connect to Hashem. It offers us insights to human nature along with the wisdom to shape and refine ourselves properly. It supplies us with the implements with which to create a just and ethical society. Torah contains the mysteries of the universe and our Creator. Torah sharpens the mind and heightens the intelligence.

Torah is also “Divine Wisdom for Dummies” and “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to G-dly Living.” An oft used metaphor for Torah is water. Our sages explain that water flows down the mountains to form the springs and streams from which we draw our supply. In a similar sense, Torah originates as Divine Wisdom, which then “flows downward” to become invested into human intelligence, describing physical phenomena and experiences. Just as the water remains the same despite the downward journey, so to Torah retains its essence as Divine Wisdom despite its manifestation as a book about the human condition.

Now Divine Wisdom is, as its name indicates, Divine. That should place it onto a level that renders it out of reach for us finite humans. Yet, somehow when we study Torah, even as it discusses civil law, history or human ethics, we are grasping Divine Wisdom. This marvelous, almost paradoxical, capacity was given to us at Sinai, when Hashem made the Torah accessible to the Jewish people, and through them, to all of humanity. So seize the opportunity that is available to each and every one of us at all times, but especially when we relive the giving of the Torah on Shavuot.

To paraphrase the blessing echoed by the Rebbe each year in anticipation of Shavuot, “May we merit to receive the Torah with joy and inner meaning.”

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

The Great Spring Fair

There is a passage in the Friday night service called V’shamru that is not recited according to the Chabad custom. When R’ Schneur Zalman, the first Chabad Rebbe, reset the prayer book to fit the Chabad custom, he inserted the passage with instructions that it be omitted. Why have it if it is not going to be recited? He explained that his close colleague, R’ Levi Yitzchak of Berdichov, was a strong proponent of reciting this passage saying “that when the Jews recite V’shomru on a Friday night, a big “yerid” - fair of angels assemble in the heavenly realms.” Out of respect for his colleague he inserted the passage. But since he maintained that there was a halachic issue with reciting it, it was to be omitted. His Chassidim asked, “What about the big fair of angels?” To which he replied, “One does not need to attend every yerid.”

Fast forward 150 years. In the early 1940s, the Rebbe launched the idea of gathering Jewish children for a march and an assembly on various occasions. This evolved into the iconic Lag B’omer parades that are held all over the world. At one of the first gatherings outside of 770 Eastern Parkway, the Rebbe was addressing the children. His father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe was proudly watching from his second story window. He commented to an aide who was standing nearby by sharing the above story and concluded by indicating that this assembly outside was one “yerid” that the Alter Rebbe was certainly attending.

The Lag B’omer parade was a phenomenon that was possible only because of the freedoms that the USA afforded to all including Jews. Coming from the oppressive Soviet regime, this was an opportunity that the Rebbe seized with enthusiasm. There were also many new ideas and attractions competing for the attention of Jewish children and Jewish people in general. Therefore it was necessary to place a bold public emphasis on the celebration of being Jewish and the pride in living Jewish.

Here is a personal Lag B’omer parade memory that I shared a few years ago -

Children watch a sports team parade after a championship victory or a Thanksgiving or Mardi Gras parade celebrating this idea or another. Now, all of a sudden, they can participate in a parade that celebrates Judaism. A Judaism that they are being told by society is archaic and irrelevant. The positive feeling that this experience provides for the child is immeasurable. Since the first parades in the 1940s, the Lag B’omer parade has grown and developed into a global brand experienced by hundreds of thousands of children around the world.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Good for all, good for one!

One of the classic sociological conundrums is the tension between the value score of the individual contrasted with that of the collective.  (See here for an interesting take on this issue within Judaism

Early on in history societies ignored the tension entirely. All that mattered was either the ruling class or the group with the greater warriors. Later as humanity began to become more sophisticated, they either struggled to identify and articulate what their particular doctrine was in this area, or they implemented a flawed philosophy where one suffers at the expense of the other. There is the doctrine that believes that everything must be sacrificed for the good of the collective (state). There is the doctrine that believes that individual liberties or rights outweighs the good of the collective. There are many shades and grades of these ideas that have been tried in history.

I would like to share an insight that Judaism offers as a nuanced perspective on this tension.

In Jewish thought this tension is articulated as the balance between Klal Yisrael (the collective Jewish people) or Tizbur (the community) and the yachid (individual Jew). When it comes to value scoring, we do not always accept that an individual’s good must be sacrificed for the good of Klal Yisrael. For example, if a group of Jews had their lives under threat and the enemy said give us one random Jew to kill or else we will come and kill you all, we don’t give up one for the sake of saving the many. On the other hand Jews are adjured to care for and value the good of the Klal even at the expense of their own detriment. There is a concept of Tircha Dztzibura – a person is expected to inconvenience himself so as not to cause trouble to the community.

In an essay the Rebbe posits, that a Jewish person should see his work on behalf of the Klal (even at the expense of his personal gain) as personally beneficial. Why, because Klal Yisrael is made up of many individual Jews. It is not an entity that is separate from the people included within it. True the Klal is greater than the sum of the parts. But it still consists of the parts. As such, that which is good for the Klal is actually good for me (even if it appears to come at a personal expense). Because I am part of the Klal, when Klal Yisrael benefits so do I.

Obviously this brief explanation is an over-simplification of a complex idea and there are certainly degrees and even exceptions to the rule. Also, this nuance requires the Klal to be administered by people (such as the Sanhedrin, a prophet or spiritual leader) who will not manipulate this improperly for their own gain. But by and large it gives us a fresh outlook on the responsibilities of the individual to the Klal, while maintaining the value score of the individual.

I would like to relate this to a practical application in our community – the daily minyan. In truth, a minyan is necessary for each individual to be able to properly pray every day. But even if a person doesn’t (currently for whatever reason) value score the minyan very highly on their personal scale of priorities, still the minyan is a vital part of a successful Jewish community. As a part of that community, I personally benefit from that success as well. (Similar to the idea of citizens benefitting from a good educational system even if they do not have children.) So therefore, even when I don’t want to trouble myself to attend the minyan, I acknowledge that it is for my personal good to do so because it is a value to community.

In this vein, we are going to be working over the next few weeks to boost the daily morning minyan. You may be getting a call or an email about this. Please consider the above articulated idea when determining your level of commitment.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


Grandparents getting younger

As some of you may know, Malkie and I had the delightful honor of becoming grandparents over Passover. Our daughter Mushka and her husband Yossi Cohen are the proud parents of a baby boy named Schneur Zalman. I know you think we are too young to be grandparents (my younger kids are engaged in a regular mission to identify gray hairs in my beard)… but that is the reality and Baruch Hashem for that. This baby is also the first great-grandchild for my parents and in-laws.

We were talking shortly after the baby was born about praying on our children’s behalf; and how that now continues on to the next generation of our grandchildren. When I was a teenager, I became aware that my maternal grandfather R’ Sholom Gordon OBM, would recite the chapter of Psalms corresponding to the age of each of his descendants. I knew about a custom to recite the Psalm corresponding to one’s own age. I also knew that Chassidim recited the Rebbe’s chapter. But this was something comforting; to know that my grandfather recited a chapter on my (and my many relatives’) behalf.

When I got married, I added my spouse’s chapter in addition to my own. As each child was born, I added their chapter to the list. In fact, often, the first thing I did at the birth of a child, was welcome them to the world with the first chapter of Psalms. When my daughter got married there was another chapter added for her spouse. And now for our grandson. As each chapter is recited, it is an opportunity to think, if but for a moment, about that person and their welfare.

Malkie mentioned to me that she did this when reciting the morning prayer/blessing about Torah study. We say “May we and our offspring, and the offspring of all of Your nation the house of Israel, all know Your name and study Your Torah.” She takes a moment to think of each of her offspring, including now the grandchild.

As a Kohen, during the priestly blessing which is recited on each festival day, I utilize the time to concentrate on each member of my family, in addition to the general blessing of the congregation and the Jewish people as a whole.

These are all our personal ways of making spiritual connections with our children and grandchildren. I share these with you only to encourage each of you to develop personal ways to forge those connections as well. It is meaningful and beneficial for the children as well as ourselves.

May we each be blessed by Hashem with an abundance of nachas from our families in good health and with plentiful resources to provide for them with dignity.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Heroics Are For Regular Folks Too

Most people don’t aspire to become heroes. Most people are content living normal, yet meaningful lives that touch and brighten the lives of others. Those people wake up each morning anticipating that the rhythm of their lives will pretty much be predictable. They expect to go through their routines, accomplish wonderful things and go to sleep at night knowing that their day has made a difference in their corner of the world. For most of them and for most of their lives, that is actually the case. Then there are those moments when regular wonderful people are faced with extraordinary circumstances. That is when normal regular people discover reservoirs of strength and heroism that they never knew they had and never hoped they would need.

Last week during the attack at Chabad of Poway, a “regular” Chabad Rabbi rose to the occasion in an extraordinary manner. Rabbi Yisrael Goldstein came to Shul on the last day of Pesach uplifted and inspired by the specialness of the day. By his own admission, the last day of Pesach was always distinct for him. It represented the aura of Redemption as indicated by the special Haftarah from Isaiah that speaks of Moshiach and the era of Redemption. He was looking forward to being inspired by the reading, and in turn inspiring his congregation as they got ready for Yizkor. He stepped out of the sanctuary to wash his hands when he heard gunshots and saw the face of evil. A young man with a firearm had just gunned down a prominent member of the Shul, Lori Kaye, and was pointing the weapon at him.

As Rabbi Goldstein put it, “I kicked into Rebbe mode.” Instead of running to protect his own life and wellbeing he sought to protect others. He along with several others in the Shul led children to safety at their own peril, while others confronted the attacker causing him to flee. With his finger dangling from being blown to pieces, he stood on a chair outside the Shul where congregants huddled in uncertainty and offered thundering words of comfort and empowerment.

After finally allowing himself to be taken for medical treatment and learning of the loss of his finger, he continued to encourage and inspire and speak out with a positive, uplifting and empowering message. Since then it has been a whirlwind of conveying this powerful message to the world through the media and various very public stages and appearances during which he has been a force for good. When asked by one of the anchormen where he got the strength to do this, he pointed to the Rebbe’s picture and he said “this is what the Rebbe taught and empowered us to do.”  

Does that mean that the harrowing experience was not real for him? Does that mean that he doesn’t take serious the crippling loss of a very close family friend and congregant? Of course not! But heroes step up in the moment.

Rabbi Goldstein’s message echoes the Rebbe’s call that, “In the face of this deep darkness we must be beacons of light.” Now we must act heroically. Ladies! Light your Shabbat candles in memory of Lori Kaye. Men, put on Tefillin for the recovery of the wounded. All of us! Let’s come to Shul this Shabbat (and every Shabbat) in solidarity with Poway. This will show the world that Am Yisrael Chai and we will not be cowed into suppressing our Yiddishkeit. We will live as proud Jews. This light will intimidate the forces of darkness into total evaporation, proving that they were but a passing shadow.

See you in Shul! May it be a Shabbat Shalom – a Sabbath of Peace
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Kotel! - Our Hearts Are Torn Asunder

Kotel defined the word alive. To imagine that someone so alive is no longer among the living, is something I cannot wrap my head around...  

Kotel was the rosh v'rishon (first person on the scene) whenever someone needed some help. He had his hands in so much of the chesed that takes place in our community. 

For the many Israelis who passed through New Orleans for liver transplants, he was a friend and a guide and source of assistance in so many ways. I think back on the many "goodbye" parties in the lobby of Brent House for each of them.

Kotel was the go to guy for anything that anyone needed relating to construction and renovation. I cannot believe that I will not hear his voice again on a call in reply to my SOS saying, "Rabbi Ma Nishma?" along with a solution to the problem that was stored in his truck together with an endless supply of everything that a person could possibly need to fix or install something. More importantly he gave you his time and with a big smile dismissing any attempt to apologize to him for taking his time.  

He truly rejoiced with you in your happy occasions and he knew how to be there for you in times of distress.  

How many people have a direct association with Kotel and the end of Yom Kippur chanting of Norah Alilah? Who will now show up at Hakafot on Simchat Torah with other-worldly scotch for everyone to enjoy? Kotel had the best costumes on Purim! I could go on and on...  

Kotel was REAL and kept it real. He was the most unpretentious person. Had no use for pompousness. He was real with you and wanted real in return. 
The man who nobody thought would ever settle down found an equally real and special person to settle down with. Sigal, our hearts are torn with you. Life without Kotel in the community is unimaginable. Your loss is incomparably greater. We are there for you as you and Kotel have been there for each and every one of us.

Kotel was a gem of human being with the warmest Jewish heart that one could ever encounter. We can only beg Hashem to speedily bring us to time when He in His great mercy will remove death forever and wipe the tears from upon our faces with the coming of Moshiach NOW!   

How will you be remembered?

This past week our family marked the Yahrtzeit of my grandfather, Reb Mordechai HaKohen Rivkin OBM, who passed away eleven years ago. Zeidy Rivkin, as we called him, was not a rabbi. In fact, since he lost his father at age 12, he had to go to work, thereby losing the opportunity to attend Yeshiva. He was a businessman all his life. Yet he was blessed with, and worked hard to further develop, a highly attuned sense of proper priorities in life. Over the years, the Rebbe found in him a person to whom he could entrust a number of sensitive and important tasks; and they would get done. My grandfather got involved in many important initiatives and institutions that were near and dear to the Rebbe. Zeidy had a sharp intuition for getting to the bottom of a situation, whether it was business or communal activism. He was extremely proud of his children and grandchildren, and everything they did to advance the cause of Yiddishkeit and the Chabad movement. He and my Bubby, may she be blessed with good health and long life, served as the super-glue to keep the family very close. Indeed, in our family, first cousins are like siblings and second cousins are like first cousins. As the fourth and even fifth generations are emerging, there is still a very acute sense of family.

On his yahrtzeit earlier this week, a number of grandchildren posted memories on social media and family chats. Many of the posts highlighted accomplishments of the several dozen great-grandchildren named Mordechai after Zeidy. What struck me was, what he was being remembered for. There were two common themes, family, and devotion to Yiddishkeit and the vision of the Rebbe. My grandfather was a man of the world. He was always dressed well and could enjoy a good restaurant or trip to a nice place. However, when he is remembered, what stands out was his devotion to his principles and ideals. This stems from the way he prioritized his life. What is valued and what is secondary? Eleven years after his passing his priorities still ring loud for us, his grandchildren. His love for us and his high regard for the important things in life loom very large for us and continue to inspire and guide us in how we live our own lives.

That same evening I attended a meeting of the Chevra Kadisha of New Orleans. The room was filled with special people who devote of their time to the ultimate kindness for those who have passed away. There was some discussion of the policy of the Chevra Kadisha with regards to burial. Someone mentioned that there were people in the community that asked to be buried with their Saints jersey. As the Jewish custom is to be buried wearing shrouds, the Saints jersey would have to be placed near the body… Now I am a New Orleanian, and I know and appreciate the importance of the Saints to our area. But when considering what to have with you for your final journey… that may be a bit much.

So when thinking about how one will be remembered after 120 years on this earth… think about what legacy will be left for children and grandchildren. What are the things that have eternal value? The answer to that question should be the engine that drives ones prioritization of time, resources and energy in life. Hopefully we will all make the right decisions, making our lasting impact on this universe that much more meaningful.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

In Defense of Defending Jews

In today’s society, it is conceivable that advancing the notion of Ahavat Yisrael – our mandate to love our fellow Jew, can be met with an objection. Don’t all people matter (All Lives Matter)? Why are you advocating for tribalism? Why can’t we just be citizens of the world? Why the (perceived) isolationism?

I would like to address this from a pragmatic rather than a theological perspective (though, in my opinion, it is impossible to truly separate them). I preface this by introducing another angle into the discussion, the defense of Israel’s right to strategic security and self-defense. Why is this a relevant angle? Over the seven decades of dialogue over the Israel issue, the Rebbe always approached it from a singular vantage point. In his view, the Jewish historical right to the land played a secondary role (at best) in arguing for a strong defense of Israel and her need to take hardline positions on certain matters. The primary argument was security. There are X million Jews living in Israel. We have an absolute mandate to advocate for their safety. Any policy that puts Jewish security at risk is against the Torah. Over and over, the Rebbe cited the passage in Jewish law about violating the Sabbath to defend against a hostile force amassing on the border of a Jewish area (even outside of Israel), even when it is not certain that there is actual threat to life. The mere possibility of a threat, is sufficient to allow for the positioning of self-defense on Shabbat.

Let’s transition back to the original discussion about the obligation of Jews to one another. Most people would not object to people regarding their immediate family members’ welfare as a primary responsibility. The Jewish people have historically regarded each other as family for whom primary responsibility is nothing to be ashamed of. There is good reason for this. Aside from the fact that we are mishpacha, there is also the historical reality that if we don’t take care of each other, nobody else (Hashem excepted) will do it for us.

On the contrary, if left to the mercy of history and human survival, we would long be gone. As it is, we have been targeted for decimation over and over again over the 4,000 years of our people’s existence. Why is it that a 4,000 year old people has a population of a paltry 15,000,000? Why are we a tiny percentage of the world’s population (equal to a statistical error in a Chinese census)? Because every few hundred years or so a genocide is perpetrated against us. We all know about the Holocaust. But prior to that it was the Cossacks in the 17th century, the inquisition in the 15th and 16th centuries, the crusaders in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Almohads, the Visigoths, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Philistines, Egyptians and many others that are too numerous to mention.

Even today, when we are in one of the safest periods in Jewish history, we are still the world’s most targeted group when it comes to crimes of prejudice. Forget about Europe and the Middle East, even in the USA, 2/3 of all hate crimes target Jews. We get it from the extreme right and the extreme left, with some tacit winking from folks tending a little closer to the center. When Israel is singled out for criticism (legitimate or illegitimate) in an extremely disproportionate manner by the self-righteous “defenders of human rights,” while the crimes of nations that carry the banner of human rights violations are dismissed or ignored, this is a form of blatant persecution against Jews.

Sadly, human history has shown, that the citizens of the world are willing to stand by as Jews are targeted and killed. Even when they come to our rescue it is often 6,000,000 people too late. The world was prepared to stand by and watch as six Arab armies attacked Israel. Only when, with Divine help the IDF was gaining the upper hand, did the “compassionate advocates of peace” intervene to stop the “bloodshed.”

American politics aside (and I mean that in all seriousness), this why Israeli control over the strategic Golan Heights is so vital. For the last 52 years countless Jewish lives have been saved by denying Syria, and its evil associates, access to the Golan Heights. This is not about politics or statesmanship. This is about security and safety.

If I may, I will close by putting my Rabbi hat (yes it is black) back on. One of the best ways to defend Jews, is by promoting Judaism to Jews. Our survival and growth as a people, is intertwined with the survival and growth of Judaism along with the important message it has for us and for the whole universe.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


Mitzvahs and Iodine

This past Tuesday, Malkie and I were blessed to celebrate the Bas Mitzvah of our daughter Hinda. We appreciate all of those who participated and sent good wishes. We are touched by the happiness expressed by so many on our behalf.

During the event we showed a video clip produced by our family, called “Where in the world is Hinda?” The concept is that Hinda’s siblings were trying to track her down while she was running around doing Mitzvahs. They were always able to discover her tracks because of the traces of light that were left in her wake resulting from the impact of the Mitzvahs. It had plenty of cute and funny moments, but it was really a deep idea.

Proverbs analogizes Mitzvahs as lights. Every Mitzvah brings a positive energy to the world. The trouble is that this energy or light is not visible to the average person. Only someone who has a heightened spiritual sensitivity can detect the light that stems from a Mitzvah. When Moshiach comes then we will all be given the capacity to see the light and energy that ensued from the Mitzvah.

This is idea is reflected in the world of medical diagnostic technology. As some know, I serve at times as a medical interpreter for Israeli patients that come to Ochsner Medical Center for liver transplants. There are many diagnostic imaging tools that are used in the course of medical evaluations and treatments. At times a contrast medium such as iodine will be administered to the patient before an imaging procedure like a CT scan or MRI. The purpose of the contrast is to improve the quality of the image of the body’s internal structure, highlight certain aspects of the anatomy undergoing the imaging, and possibly even block obstructions. When viewed through the instrumentation of the machine, the contrast appears bright and illuminated, allowing for a better diagnostic picture.

However, trying to view the impact of the contrast without the proper instruments is a worthless endeavor. Not to say that the contrast hasn’t done its job. But we simply can’t appreciate its accomplishments when we lack the tools to view the impact.

So every Mitzvah that we do is like injecting positive spiritual contrast into the universe, which, with proper instrumentation can be seen, and its impact appreciated. One day very soon we will all be given the lenses required to perceive the voluminous effect that Mitzvahs have had in illuminating our world with the Light of Hashem.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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