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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 - https://www.chabadneworleans.com/templates/blog/post.asp?aid=1203266&PostID=54258&p=1.

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 www.chabadneworleans.com/templates/blog/post.asp?aid=1203266&postid=85783&p=1.)

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

Be a Jew in Shushan

The Megillah introduces Mordechai to us in the following manner, “Ish Yehudi – a Jewish man lived in Shushan Habirah - the capital city, whose name was Mordechai….” There are a number of interesting angles on this intro. Firstly, Mordechai was not from the tribe of Judah, yet he is called a Yehudi - Jew (the Megillah is the first time the term Jew is used to describe the nation of Israel as a whole). Also, there is an emphasis on his place of residence, Shushan Habirah. We meet Shushan earlier in the story when it describes King Achashverosh and his feast. We already know that it is the capital of Persia. Why the need to emphasize it again?

Our sages explain the use of the title Yehudi as being associated with one who is firm in his commitment to Hashem and rejects the worship of a foreign deity. Mordechai refused to bow to Haman and his idol thereby earning himself the title Yehudi. He then encourages and persuades the entire Jewish people to remain firm in their commitment to Hashem.

There are degrees of commitment to Hashem. There are those who are willing to be a Yehudi in the Synagogue. They will pray and study and observe Mitzvahs. But when they leave Shul they put the kippah in the pocket, and kiss the Mezuzah and G-d goodbye for a while.

Others are willing to extend the commitment to their homes and Jewish settings. They will keep Kosher and Shabbat. They will recite blessings over food and give Tzedakah. If a Rabbi comes to visit the office they have a kippah ready to wear for the occasion. But when outside among society there is no need to stick out and act differently.

Mordechai was exemplary in that he was a Yehudi even in Shushan Habirah. Shushan was the capital – the place where Persian society was at its strongest. The feast narrative tells us all we need to know about the culture of Shushan. Nevertheless, Mordechai was a proud Yehudi even in Shushan. That is the kind of example he set and the leadership he demonstrated for the Jewish people.

We are all Yehudim now. We are all inspired by the model of Mordechai in our devotion to Hashem. Let’s make sure that we are Yehudim even in Shushan Habirah. We can be proud visible Jews, while being comfortable on the streets of the French Quarter (most of them anyway), in the halls of Capitol Hill in DC, and the highest skyscrapers in Manhattan.

On behalf of all of the Shluchim of Chabad of Louisiana, I wish you a very joyous and meaningful Purim. Please join Chabad at one of the many events listed below.

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Purim is also about anti-Semitism

Purim is also about anti-Semitism. (See www.chabadneworleans.com/blog for last week’s post entitled “Purim is not about anti-Semitism.) Not only that, but even after the Haman threat was eliminated, serious vigilance against the potential flare up of further anti-Semitism was needed. Where is this indicated?

The very last verse of the book of Esther states: “For Mordechai the Jew was viceroy to King Achashverosh, and great among the Jews and accepted by most of his brethren; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all their offspring.” There is a glaring awkwardness in this verse. Why was Mordechai accepted by most of his brethren and not all? What could the detractors possibly find wrong with him? He just saved the entire Jewish people from a “final solution” attempt to “to annihilate, murder and destroy all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on one day.”

The answer is in the earlier part of the verse, “Mordechai the Jew was viceroy to the king.” Some of his colleagues in the Sanhedrin felt that once the decree was averted, Mordechai should have resigned from governmental affairs to exclusively apply himself to Torah. In fact, in a listing of leading sages of the Sanhedrin in the book of Nechemiah, Mordechai is slightly demoted from his place on an earlier list in the book of Ezra.

So why indeed did Mordechai elect to remain an active leading member of the king’s court? In the opening verse of the Megillah it states: “And it came to pass in the days of Achashverosh, the same Achashverosh who ruled… one hundred and twenty-seven provinces.” Why does the verse repeat the name of the king? It could have just said, “In the days of Achashverosh who ruled…” Our sages explain, that the verse is pointing out to us that Achashverosh was also a Jew hater. He was threatened by the prophecy of Jeremiah that G-d would bring the Jews back to Israel after 70 years of exile. The party described in the opening chapter of the story is a celebration of his perception that those 70 years passed and the Jews would be his subjects forever. Indeed later on the story, when Haman offers the king 10,000 silver talents in exchange for permission to destroy the Jews, Achashverosh responds, “The money is yours to keep, and the nation is yours to do with as you please.” Why? Because he was an anti-Semite just like Haman was. Maybe for a more pragmatic reason; but he hated the Jews all the same.

Mordechai reasoned, that a fickle king such as Achashverosh, who displays such narcissistic tendencies, can easily swing right back to his old Jew hating ways if he felt threatened by them. So Mordechai deemed it necessary to remain as viceroy, in order to address any threats that may arise.  

Jews must always be vigilant and take measures to protect ourselves, whilst remaining hyper-cognizant of the fact (as mentioned in last week’s post) that the true source of our protection and well-being, both physical and spiritual, is our connection to Hashem. To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, we must “pray softly and carry a big stick.”  

Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Purim is not about anti-Semitism

Purim is not a holiday about anti-Semitism. Of course Haman was most definitely an anti-Semite. (In fact, he got his career in Jew hatred started as an entry-level government official who was advocating against Persian support for the Jewish people’s right to a homeland in Israel.) Furthermore, he most certainly tried to persecute and destroy the Jewish nation. Finally, his plans were thwarted by the powerful Jewish lobby in the palace (the queen), resulting in his downfall and execution. Following the Jewish victory against Haman’s minions, Mordechai and the sages of Israel established the festival of Purim. So how can we say that Purim is not about anti-Semitism?

Because the story told above is only the mask - the outer layer. Upon closer examination, we discover an entirely different subplot that is far more instructive of how we are to live as Jews.

When Haman issues his decree, Mordechai reacts by wearing sack-cloth and ashes and declaring that Jews must gather in prayer, fasting and Teshuvah. What happened to working the phones and leaning on his connections in the king’s court? What happened to raising money for an effort to get the decree annulled by the king?

When Esther is prevailed upon to go to the king, she prepares by fasting for three days. For a king who spent 4 ½ years looking for the most beautiful woman in the Persian empire to marry, it would not seem to be wisest idea to approach him after a three day fast. Even a very attractive woman doesn’t look great without eating or drinking for 72 hours. It would seem more logical for Esther to spend three days at the spa and shopping for new clothes with which to impress the king.

So what’s the deal? Mordechai and Esther understood that Haman’s decree is merely a symptom of a deeper issue. Namely, the Jewish people falling out of favor with Hashem. This was because of the self-degradation stemming from the Jews wanting so desperately to be accepted by Persian society, that they went to the king’s feast celebrating their own subjugation. They were so thrilled just to be invited to the ball, that they tossed their Yiddishkeit; eating the non-Kosher food, engaging in promiscuity, and fully embracing the pagan Persian culture.

Accordingly, Mordechai’s primary focus was getting the Jews good with Hashem again through prayer and repentance. Once that got squared away, they then employed natural channels to get the decree annulled and the enemy eliminated. Consequently, Purim is a celebration of our reunification with Hashem as His treasured and devoted nation. Haman’s anti-Semitism was just a side-bar.

The takeaway is that every threat to our people must be dealt with using all means available to us. But we must first remember that our primary task is to strengthen our connection to Hashem. Only then can our efforts to neutralize the threats be effective.

Shabbat Shalom and happy Purim prep!
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

Who's Helping Whom?

Who’s giving to whom? The Midrash (Lev. Rabba) states, “More than what the philanthropist does for the poor person, the poor person does for the philanthropist.” The conventional way of understanding this is that the poor person gives the rich person the opportunity to do a Mitzvah. And not just any mitzvah, but the Mitzvah of Tzedakah, which has many special merits as enumerated by our sages all over the Talmud and Midrash.

This week I heard a story that gives a whole new meaning to this concept. We had a visitor at Minyan one morning this week, who shared with me something that happened to him. Several years ago his teenage daughter went into renal failure and she needed a kidney. It was determined that he was a match, and he became a kidney donor for his daughter. With Hashem’s help all went well, and they both recovered nicely.

Fast forward one year. This man is a member of Hatzalah, the volunteer ambulance corps. He was rushing to a call one day, and as he went through an intersection on a red, a bus plowed into the driver's side of his vehicle. He took a rough hit on his side and was badly injured. When Hatzalah rushed him to the emergency room, the doctors were freaking out about the prospect of major damage to his kidney, with the possibility of kidney rupture. He and the Hatzalah members who brought him in were laughing. He explained to the doctors that a year ago he had given that kidney to his daughter and therefore there was no kidney there to worry about.

So while he thought he was helping his daughter by giving her a kidney and saving her life, in fact she relieved him of his kidney thereby saving him from major medical issues.

We don’t always understand Hashem’s ways. But we do know that in the end end end, doing what Hashem’s wants of us is also for our own benefit.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

Jewish Constancy

One of the marks of devotion is constancy. In Hebrew, the word for constant is Tamid. We were commanded to have a constant fire burning on the altar in the Temple. This was called the Aish Tamid – constant fire. As a reflection of that, many Synagogues have a Ner Tamid – constant flame (or bulb) – burning in front of the Ark. There are six mitzvot that are referred to as Tamid due to their being incumbent upon us constantly. (E.g. The belief in G-d.) There was an offering in the Temple called Tamid that was brought consistently each morning and again each afternoon. It was “Tamid” in the sense that even on Shabbat, holidays, and Yom Kippur, the first and last offering of the day was the Tamid.

Now that we have established the credentials of Tamid, I would like to direct your attention to the Shulchan Aruch – code of Jewish law. The author, Rabbi Yosef Caro, wrote with a Sephardic bent to his Halachic renderings. So an Ashkenazic authority, Rabbi Moshe Isserlish, known as Rema, wrote glosses that were included in the text of the Shulchan Aruch. He opens his glosses to the very first passage of Jewish law, dealing with waking up in the morning, by quoting a verse. Psalms 16:8 states: Shivisi Hashem L’negdi Tamid – I have placed the L-rd before me constantly. He then goes on to explain why this is a fundamental principle of Jewish conduct. When a person has Hashem before them constantly, this reinforces the devotion to Hashem and the Mitzvot of the Torah.

Shulchan Aruch is divided into four major sections. The first deals with the daily and calendar life of a Jew. It covers the daily schedule of prayer, meals, and general conduct. It goes onto the laws of Sabbath, and then festivals. The last set of laws is the section dealing with Purim. The conclusion addresses a leap year when there are two Adars. The Rema ends as follows. “There are those who say that one is obligated to increase in joy and feasting on the 14th of Adar I however this is not the practice. Nonetheless one should increase slightly their joy and feasting in order to fulfill the words of those who are stringent, (Proverbs 15:15) “V’tov Lev Mishteh Tamid” - “A cheerful heart celebrates constantly.”

So the bookends of the laws of life are two “Tamids”. One must constantly be in a state of awareness of Hashem’s presence (being G-d-fearing) and must constantly be in a state of joy. The commentators explain that these are a reflection of the two daily Tamid offerings that came at the outset and conclusion of each day’s service.

One might think that the two “Tamids” are at odds. Yet, Chassidus explains that these two attitudes of constancy are interdependent. Yir’as Shamayim (being G-d-fearing) must be tempered by joy in order for it to be effective in a person’s life. Indeed the Psalmist (100:2) encourages us to “Serve the L-rd with joy.” Joy, on the other hand, must be molded by Yir’as Shamyim in for it to be properly directed. Together the Tamids provide for us a perfectly synthesized approach to life.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

Sweet or Savory?

Savory or Sweet? This is not just a question for people ordering a waffle. This is a real serious existential question. Which of the two is preferable? You might answer that it depends on your taste. Some prefer sweet over savory, and some prefer savory over sweet. That may very well be true; but it is a bit of a cop out.

Come on now… if you think about it honestly, how many people need to be trained to appreciate candy or ice cream. Show me a kid that doesn’t like sweet, and I will show you a kid who has brain freeze from too much ice cream. For that matter, show me an adult that doesn’t like some version of sweet, be it candy, chocolate, ice cream or cake. And now let’s think about savory honestly. Not everyone is born with a penchant for the piquant. Often it is an acquired taste for the palate that enjoys the tangy or tart flavors of savory cuisine.

So I pose the question again. Savory or Sweet? Shouldn’t the obvious conclusion be sweet? Or should it? Perhaps, once one develops the appreciation for the savory, there is no going back to sweet as the favorite?

At this point you may be wondering if you haven’t by accident made a wrong turn on the internet to a foodie blog…

On the verse in Genesis (27:4) where Isaac instructs his son, “Make for me delicacies, such as I like,” the Zohar comments, this is the voice of the Shechinah instructing the Jewish people to bring G-d nachas – pleasure through their service. In Tanya (Ch. 27) the Alter Rebbe explains, that there are two types of service represented by the use of the plural - delicacies. There is the service of a Tzadik, who is occupied solely with that sweetness of life, having conquered and eliminated the evil inclination within. This is a sweet and luscious delicacy for G-d.

Then there is the service of the regular Jew who struggles with the bitterness – the desire and inclination to do that which against G-d’s will. But when such a Jew manages to confront and subdue that evil thought or desire, this is akin to working the spicy and tangy flavors into a savory delicacy for G-d.

G-d certainly delights in the life of a Tzadik and the sweet pleasure this brings Him. One can argue, that the savory dish created by the toil of the “regular Jew” in subduing the natural desire for worldliness, and exchanging it with the service of G-d, is a pleasure in which G-d delights maybe just a bit more.

So I pose the question again. Savory or Sweet? Let’s leave that to G-d to decide. Or maybe we can just have a little bit of both.

Wishing you a sweet and savory Shabbos!
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Facetiming with G-d

Song of Songs, 8:1 says “O, that you were like my brother.” Our sages explain that this verse laments the loss of the close relationship we enjoyed with Hashem when our Sanctuary (Temple) was extant. This love was symbolized by the Keruvim, which had the likeness of two people lovingly facing each other. As our Parsha states, “the cherubim shall have their wings spread upwards… with their faces toward one another…” This represents the closeness and love that Hashem projected to us, as well as the closeness and love that we projected to Hashem. But alas the sanctuary was destroyed and the Keruvim are no longer visible; so how do we access that feeling of love from and to Hashem?

The Talmud teaches, “ever since the Temple was destroyed G-d can be accessed in the “four cubits of Halacha.” Meaning, that Torah study is the way that one can capture an element of that loving, face to face relationship with Hashem. As Tanya (Ch. 5) explains, “Through Torah study a person can grasp and envelop the Divine Wisdom, whilst simultaneously being enveloped and grasped within It. This is a wonderful union, like which there is none other, and which has no parallel anywhere in the material world, whereby complete oneness and unity, from every side and angle, could be attained.” One can completely hug and envelop Hashem while being hugged and enveloped by Hashem at the same time. To put it in contemporary terms, Torah study is like Facetiming with G-d.

One of the reasons that G-d’s love is expressed through Torah and vice-versa, is because Torah empowers us and gives us the means by which to introduce and reveal G-dliness and a G-dly purpose into our world, which appears to be so disparate from G-dliness. This is G-d’s purpose for all of creation. So He is heavily invested in its achievement, as should we be.

So the next time you are lamenting your inability to experience a closeness to Hashem the way they had it in the olden days… know that it is within your reach. Crack open a volume of Chumash, Talmud, Halacha, Midrash, or Chassidus and start Facetiming with G-d. Put some feeling into the experience, and you may just begin to feel the love.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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