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ChabadNewOrleans Blog

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

 

Do Jews Really Control the World?

I want to share with you some of what our network was able to pull off this week to facilitate the observance of Passover for our fellow Jews. We got a Facebook message from Texas asking us to deliver Matzah to a Jewish acquaintance in New Orleans.

We got a phone call from a Rabbi in Massachusetts asking us to place a young man from his community who doing Peace Corp work in New Orleans at a Seder.

We got a WhatsApp message from an Australian Chabad Rabbi, who was seated on a plane to the US near a young Jewish attorney whose destination was New Orleans. Could we place him for the Seder?

Got a family chat message from a cousin in Northern California about a member of his community who had a daughter living in NOLA. Could we get some Matzah to her?

We learned about the daughter of a woman in our community living in New York that had not received any Matzah. Within 24 hours she was visited by a Rabbi with Matzah and an invite to a Seder. He also found another Jew who worked at her place of employment and left him with the same.

My son was asked by a Rabbi who oversees Chabad’s activities in Cuba, to travel there to conduct the Passover Sedarim with a friend. Less than 24 hours later, they landed in Havana.

This is of course, in addition to the 1,000 boxes of Matzah that Chabad distributed in the greater New Orleans area, and the dozens of people that will be attending each of the Chabad Seders all over town. (If you still need a place reach out to Rabbi Nemes – [email protected].)

The same scene repeated itself all over the world. Wherever Chabad is found, this powerful network orchestrates the facilitation of Jewish needs for locals and visitors. Utilizing swift methods of communication and friendships between Rabbis, people can be helped in real ways in a very short time. Just today, Jake Tapper of CNN had a Chabad Rabbi in Kyiv lay Tefillin with him just before Passover and then they did a quick Seder together.   

The Sherlockians among you may recall Holmes describing his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, as a spider who sits at the center of his web of crime. He never moves from his place, but he oversees every quiver in the London crime world through his carefully crafted network of evil.

On the side of positivity, we have the Rebbe, whose 120th birthday was celebrated this week around thew world. You may not know this about the Rebbe, but from 1947 until 1994 the Rebbe hardly left a 3 square block area in Brooklyn. Apart from regular visits to the Ohel (tomb) of his predecessor in Queens, three visits in the 1950s and 60s to the Chabad summer camp in upstate New York, and a rare medical appointment, the Rebbe did not get around much. His Synagogue/Office/library, home, Mikvah and the apartment of his mother (until her passing in 1964) pretty much sums up the extent of the Rebbe’s circle.

Yet, the Rebbe was intimately familiar with thousands of locales around the world. He knew the inner workings of every community where a Chabad Shliach was present, and even where there was just occasional visitation. Utilizing the network that was developed by his inspiration and urging, the Rebbe continues to positively impact the lives of Jews in every nook and cranny of the world.

As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks phrased it, “Just as Hitler sought to hunt down every Jew in hate, the Rebbe sought to hunt down every Jew in love.”

It is a privilege to a part of this network of love.

Wishing each and every one of you, a joyous and meaningful Pesach. May we all experience true liberation and freedom from all that keeps us down!

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Education and Sharing Day New Orleans

Yesterday, I was joined by several Chabad of Louisiana colleagues and Richard Cahn, at the New Orleans City Council Chambers to accept a proclamation by the city council designating the Rebbe’s upcoming 120 birthday on Tuesday, April 12, to be Education and Sharing Day New Orleans. If you would like to see some video footage and photos click here: https://www.facebook.com/mendelrivkin/posts/5343556922345174.

Similar designations take place on the federal level in Washington DC, in every one of the 50 states, hundreds of municipalities, and in countries around the world. In fact, this has been a trend that began in the late 70s and has been growing each year.

Why is the Rebbe’s birthday acknowledged by so many? What moved presidents from Carter to Reagan to Biden and everyone in between, to honor the Rebbe in this way? What brought members of the United States Congress from Shirly Chisolm and John Lewis, to Jesse Helms and Newt Gingrich, to unite in bestowing the National Medal of Honor upon the Rebbe? Why are governors, mayors, and city councilors from states and cities with minimal Jewish populations declaring the Rebbe’s birthday as Education and Sharing Day in their respective jurisdiction?

It is because the Rebbe’s message and vision resonates universally with all people. The Rebbe’s perspective of valuing every individual’s uniqueness can and should be appreciated by all. The Rebbe’s recognition of the inherent goodness and spark of G-d within all, is a source of hope for so many for whom hope seemed to be lost. The Rebbe’s persistent positivity coupled with a relentless striving for growth is an inspiration to all of humanity.

How much more so should this day be meaningful every one of us, who were directly touched by the Rebbe’s teaching and example. We must surely celebrate this day by increasing our commitment to “Education and Sharing.” Doing so will bring us one step closer to the realization of the Rebbe’s vision of a world of goodness – the world of Redemption through the coming of Mashiach.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Give the Rebbe a Gift

What birthday present would you give to a person who has no need nor appreciation for “stuff?”

When Chassidim considered this question in anticipation of the Rebbe’s birthdays over the years, they concluded that the best present would be the gift of an increase in Torah learning, mitzvah observance, and advancing the Rebbe’s efforts to reach every Jew in love. As the Rebbe’s 70th birthday drew near in 1972, the Rebbe addressed the sentiments of so many who wished to give him a present for that special occasion. He confirmed that resolutions of an increase in personal Torah and Mitzvahs brought him great pleasure. He acknowledged that intensifying the work of Chabad on an individual level as well as movement wide, were gifts that would be greatly welcomed. In fact, he launched an initiative to establish 71 new institutions over the coming year.

This year, we are celebrating the Rebbe’s 120th birthday. In addition to the individual gifts that people who have been touched by the Rebbe’s inspiration and teachings will be offering, we wanted to do something community wide. The Director of Chabad of Louisiana, my father, Rabbi Zelig Rivkin, with the encouragement and support of Richard and Vivian Cahn of the Cahn Family Foundation, resolved to significantly expand the distribution of Shmura Matzah in our community. This is a project that was an initiative of the Rebbe’s in the early 1950s. This year, over 1,100 households in Louisiana will receive a box of this hand baked Shmura Matzah to use at their Seder. Shmura Matzah is Matzah made from flour that was guarded from the time of the grain harvest until the moment it is mixed with water and baked in under 18 minutes. This is the ideal Matzah to be used at the Seder. The Rebbe wanted every Jew to have the benefit of using this special Matzah at their Seder.

We need partnership for this project to be a success. I speak not of financial support. We thank the Cahn family for generously underwriting the project. We need volunteers to help deliver the Matzah between now and Passover. If you would like to be a part of our communal gift to the Rebbe, please let me know that we can count on you to get Matzahs into homes in time for Pesach. You will also be giving yourself the gift of knowing that you enhanced the Pesach of so many in our community. Bringing the joy and meaning of Pesach to another, is the channel for Hashem’s blessing of a meaningful and joyous Pesach. May we all experience the true freedom and liberation from everything that is holding us down as individuals and as a society.

I look forward to hearing from you!
Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Pondering Purim Paradoxes

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Purim is a holiday filled with paradoxes like a Hamantash is filled with… (insert favorite filling here).

On one hand, the political circumstances of the Jews have never been better in times of exile (aside from our contemporary days). The Queen of Persia was a member of the tribe. Mordechai, a top ranked member of the Sanhedrin, was also a prominent courtier and advisor to King Achashverosh. Jews were welcomed and successfully integrated into Persian society. From the standpoint of security, it would be hard to find a rival time in the history of our exile when the Jews were better equipped to diplomatically address any threat.

On the other hand, there has never been a threat that was more existential than Haman’s ultimate final solution for annihilating Am Yisrael. Every single Jew in the world lived under Persian sovereignty. Haman’s stated plan to was to kill every single Jew, young and old, men, women, and children, in a single day. He had the authority and the power to carry out his plan. What Hitler tried, unsuccessfully, thank G-d, to achieve in 7 years, Haman was actually capable of accomplishing in one day. He had orders to the leadership and citizenry of each of the 127 provinces to strike against the Jews and exterminate them in one fell swoop.

On the other hand, when Mordechai and Esther sought to alleviate Haman’s threat, they did not rely on their connections and political security. The first step they took was creating a spiritual awakening of prayer and fasting on the part of the Jewish people. In fact, Esther, whose beauty was ostensibly going to be the ticket to salvation, fasted for three days before approaching the king to save her people. Not exactly the best recipe for looking your best.

On the other hand, when reading the Book of Esther, which is absent of a mention of G-d altogether, one might mistakenly conclude that that the entire story was a sequence of natural occurrences.

On the other hand, the G-dless narrative was included in scripture, and is full of allusions to the hidden Hand of G-d, pulling the strings “behind the scenes.”

On the other hand, the primary observances of Purim are very physical in nature, giving us the impression that we are simply celebrating “they tried to kill us, we won; let’s eat.”

On the other hand, Purim contains some of the deepest spiritual mysteries of the Torah, causing our sages to declare that the celebration of Purim and the book of Esther, will survive into the times of Mashiach, when most other aspects of Judaism will pale in comparison to the great revelations of Redemption.

Actually, there are no paradoxes here at all. It all makes perfect sense. We Jews have never been governed by the natural order. Our survival and thriving, is linked to our relationship with Hashem. When we let our guard down and think that we are secure, we get a rude awakening. That awakening sparks a spiritual revival, pushing us to discover that the ultimate was to serve Hashem is by integrating spirituality into everyday physical life, which leads us on the path to Redemption. See, it all wraps up nicely with a bow on top, just like a beautiful Mishloach Manot package.

L'chaim and happy Shushan Purim
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

A Passion for Caring

I want to share with you the message and story that I offered to my son Murdechai this past Monday night at his Bar Mitzvah celebration.

During times of chaos and conflict, the Rebbe urged an increase in love and unity among the Jewish people as a pathway to world peace and conflict resolution. The Mitzvah of Ahavas Yisrael, loving our fellow as ourselves, is a fundamental principle for all Jewish people. We are privileged that the Rebbe made this our “job.” As a family of Shluchim, our mandate is all about caring for and helping others.

Back in Russia, a Chassidic school teacher once observed an exchange between two five-year-old students. One boy asked the other if he could borrow some of his ink, because he did not have anymore in his own inkwell. The second boy refused saying, that he needed the ink for himself. During the next class, the teacher called on the second boy and asked him, “what is Kamatz Alef?” Alef is the first of the Hebrew letters and Kamatz is the first vowel. The boy replied, “Kamatz Alef, ah.” The teacher said, “No, Kamatz Alef means that when your friend asks you to borrow some ink you willingly give it to him.” The teacher then asked him, “what is Kamatz Beis?” The boy said, “Kamatz Beis bah.” The teacher said, “No, Kamatz Beis means that when your friend asks you to borrow some ink you willingly give it to him.” The teacher then went on to ask him each of the 22 letters and gave him the same answer.

We need to know that the foundation of Judaism is caring for another. We must strengthen our Ahavas Yisrael muscles to the point that we develop a geshmak – passion and flavor for caring and doing a favor for another.

This was my message and blessing to my son. It is a message and blessing that is valuable for each and every one of us!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Real Time Ukraine Update

I want to share with you some real time updates that I am getting from colleagues on the ground in Ukraine and those that recently escaped.

As the hostilities escalated, it became clearer that things were going to be much tougher than anticipated. Leaked information from Russian military units indicated that senior Jewish leadership would be targeted specifically. Chechen fighters aligned with the Russian forces, were seen to have displayed indiscriminate cruelty even against civilians, raping and pillaging like the “good old days” when the Cossacks and the Tatars united to terrorize the region and especially the Jews. In cities with high level clashes such as Charkov, Sumy, Zhaparozhe, Chernigov, Zhitomir, Chernovitz, and of course Kyiv, the focus turned from hunkering down to getting as many people out as possible. Here are some actual experiences of Ukraine Shluchim and their communities.

My cousin and her husband together with their eight children, including a three week old baby, went on a 60 hour journey through Ukraine, Moldava, Romania and then on to Israel.

A good friend, together with his family and the other Shluchim of his city, went on a dangerous escape across the border that included some very tense moments of trying to obtain more gasoline for the escape vehicles.  

A classmate and his family were jammed onto a train for 20 hours along with thousands of others trying to leave with not an inch to move, no access to food or facilities.

Another friend and his family had all of their escape routes apparently cut off by Russian forces, until they managed to break through and leave on a 24 hour car ride towards the border to safety.

A colleague shared a tearful voice note about how torn he was to be leaving the community that he has led since the early 90s. After filling 10 buses with members of the community, he grabbed the Torah and got on the last bus to safety.

I could go on and on. Even as these Shluchim and their communities reach the borders in safety, they are left homeless and penniless. Although they hope to be able to return and rebuild after the situation improves, they have no idea to what extent of destruction they will return. In the meantime, there are hundreds of Shluchim and tens of thousands of refugees from these communities that need to be cared for.

We, the international Jewish community, need to step up and be their support system. These are our brothers and sisters. Please open your hearts and wallets to generously contribute to the relief effort at www.chabadneworleans.com/ukraine. Let us go into a peaceful Shabbat, knowing that we are doing our part to care about our brethren in crisis.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Black Hattitude

This morning Malkie and I took our son Murdechai downtown to Meyer the Hatter to purchase a black hat for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah.

Back in the day fedoras were very common. Nobody left home without a hat. Over the past seventy years, the fedora’s popularity has significantly declined, and hat stores have shuttered their doors. Interestingly, New Orleans is one of the remaining places where fedora sales still thrive. Behind the counter they have hundreds of autographed photos of celebrities that have purchased hats there.

For Murdechai, his new black hat has nothing to do with fashion, NOLA or otherwise, but rather it is rooted in Chabad community tradition.

I am sure many wonder, aloud or to themselves, “what’s the deal with the back hats?” The truth is that black and hat are based on two different concepts. In Jewish law, there is a notion that when approaching G-d in prayer or other forms of worship (Mitzvahs etc.), that men wear a head-covering, in addition to the yarmulka that is always worn. That explains the hat. But it doesn’t explain the choice of color or style.

My uncle, Rabbi Manis Friedman, was once challenged on why Chassidim wear black/dark hats and jackets. He quipped that people wear black on formal occasions, e.g. black tie only events, an important meeting, etc. Chassidim deem every occasion of interacting with Hashem as a formal occasion. Since that is a constant, they are always dressed that way.

Folks wonder if this uniform dress style crimps one’s individuality. Don’t all Chassidim look alike? I have been mistaken for nearly every other Chabad Rabbi here in town, despite differences in hair color, body build, height, and age. How many of you have commented in this manner while looking at the Shluchim conference photo? My colleague, Rabbi Aron Moss opined on this topic – www.chabadneworleans.com/160970.

For Murdechai, the hat offers a feeling of belonging and association with the traditions of his heritage. Obviously, the Tefillin and the newfound responsibility to Mitzvahs are what’s truly important. As for the hat, if it will make him feel more grown up and spur him to take his Judaism more seriously, isn’t that what a Bar Mitzvah is all about?

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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