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Getting up close and personal with Hashem

The season of the giving of the Torah is upon us. Shavuot is less than two weeks away. Our holidays are not meant to be observed as commemorations of history, but rather as a reliving of the events that took place on that particular day.

When we consider revelation at Sinai, the Ten Commandments, and all that took place when the Torah was given 3323 years ago, there is a lot to relive and experience once more.

I would like to highlight one aspect that I feel has great relevance for us at all times. The opening words of the Ten Commandments are, Anochi Hashem Elokecha – I am the L-rd your G-d. In Hebrew the word “your” can be rendered in singular form or plural form. The commentators ask why the singular form – “Elokecha” is used here rather than the usual plural form - “Elokeichem.”

One of the explanations for this is, that addressing each Jew as an individual emphasizes the need for each individual to have a personal relationship with Hashem. Hashem is my G-d not just our G-d. This notion of everyone having a personal relationship with Hashem was one the great contributions of the Baal Shemtov to Jewish life. He empowered even the simplest folk by showing them that they could do so. One of the means of experiencing this personal relationship with Hashem is through Tefillah. Tefillah is often defined as prayer. While Tefillah definitely includes praying to Hashem for our needs, the more accurate definition is attachment. Tefillah is a time of bonding with Hashem. When a person utilizes Tefillah in its proper form then it becomes a path for establishing a personal relationship with Hashem. The teachings of Chassidism can help a person enhance the Tefillah experience to where it becomes more meaningful and leads a person toward a personal relationship with Hashem.

Wishing you all a productive period of preparation for receiving the Torah and all that comes with it!

Mazel Tov to Ezra Remer and his entire family who are celebrating his Bar Mitzvah this Shabbos.

What's in a Name? - our daughter Devorah Leah

Our daughter was born last Sunday morning. In the Chabad tradition, we named her Devorah Leah at the first opportunity – namely the Torah reading at Monday morning Minyan. (This is associated with the Kabbalistic notion that the soul is able to manifest itself more completely once the Jewish name – the spiritual character of the soul – is assigned to the child.)

Historically, the names Devorah and Leah have many associations. Devorah is one of the seven Biblical prophetesses, who judged and led the Jewish nation soon after their initial entry to the land of Israel. Leah is one our four matriarchs, the mother of half of the tribes of Israel. Through the ages there were many special women who bore these names, including our community’s own Natalie Brown, of blessed memory, whose Jewish middle name was Devorah.

One must however, look to Chabad history to see these two names becoming a singular entity, eventually earning an honored place in Chabad lore, with thousands of women proudly bearing the name Devorah Leah.  

The first Devorah Leah in Chabad history is a young woman who was very much ahead of her times. As a child in the early 18th century, she longed to be engaged in the study of Torah, which at that time was a boy’s domain. When she discovered her mother Rochel’s secret, that she was a gifted Torah scholar, unknown to anyone around her, she begged her mother to teach her. Unfortunately, her period of Torah study bliss were abruptly ended by the untimely passing of her mother. Through the Baal Shemtov’s orchestration, Devorah Leah was introduced to and married a young prodigy named Yosef Yitzchak, who became the dean of the Yeshiva in Vitebsk, Russia. One of their agreements before marrying was that they would study together regularly, and thus Devorah Leah became a great scholar in her own right. When her younger brother Boruch married a fine girl named Rivkah, she undertook to tutor her sister-in-law in Torah learning as well. Boruch and Rivkah’s oldest son, Schneur Zalman grew to become known as the Alter Rebbe, the founder of the Chabad school of Chassidism and author of its foundational work, the Tanya.

With his life so profoundly influenced by his aunt Devorah Leah, the Alter Rebbe honored her memory by naming his younger daughter Devorah Leah. This young Rebbetzin, daughter of Chabad royalty and mother of Chabad royalty (her son R’ Menachem Mendel became the 3rd Rebbe of Chabad,) single-handedly saved the future of Chabad through her self-sacrifice.

To read the story in full go to www.chabadneworleans.com/719253. Briefly, in the year 1792, the Alter Rebbe sensed that there was a great spiritual threat to the continuity of the Chassidic movement in general, and Chabad in particular. He understood that in heaven a storm of opposition was raging in reaction to the great success the Baal Shemtov’s revolution had in revitalizing Judaism. He further realized, that the path of Chabad was being targeted due to the manner in which it made Chassidism accessible to all.

His daughter Devorah Leah intuited that the threat could result in the early passing of her great father, which would likely signal the end of Chabad, whose teachings and way of life may not have been rooted enough to be sustained without the Alter Rebbe’s direction. Just before Rosh Hashanah, she gathered three of her father’s most illustrious Chassidim – as a Beit Din – and swore them to secrecy. She then declared that she would give up her life to save the life of her father, along with the future of the path that he was forging in the service of Hashem. At the conclusion of the holiday she informed her father about what she had done and requested that he take her three year old Menachem Mendel, and raise him as his own. The next day she passed away. The Alter Rebbe lived for 20 more years; and the Chabad movement, not only survived, but thrived and developed and has continued to impact Jewish life until this very day.

As Chassidim we recognize the great sacrifice a mother made in giving up her life and thus the chance to raise her child, for the sake of our future. As such, we proudly honor her Mesirut Nefesh – self-sacrifice – by naming our daughter Devorah Leah. It is our hope that our daughter Devorah Leah draws inspiration from the great women whose names she bears, and the she brings honor to their lives by the way she lives her own.

A Tribute to Natalie Brown

This week our community suffered the loss of a beloved member, Natalie Brown. Natalie’s passing after a years-long fight with breast cancer, leaves us all struggling to find words of comfort for her husband Joel, daughters, Ruth, Sarah and Rebecca, parents, Lila and Norman Millen, sister, Jennifer Fertel and the entire family.

Much has already been said about how special Natalie was, and much more will be said in the days to come and beyond. I would like to share a few of my thoughts.

Some of the words that come to mind when talking about Natalie are: mensch, stalwart, cheerful, positive, practical and loyal. I paraphrase our morning prayers, “L’olam Yehei Adam” loosely translated as “first thing is, be a mensch.” Natalie epitomized this ideal as she related to people, whether at Kosher Cajun, the store she and Joel started and ran together, or out and about. She always displayed a positive attitude and cheerful disposition, even during the most difficult times of illness. There is no question that Natalie served as the anchor of her family as she steered them through life. Her strength was visible both during the good times as well as the tough times. Undoubtedly this strength will continue to serve Joel and the girls as they pick up the pieces and make their way forward.

In addition to all of her personal qualities, one of Natalie’s greatest merits, along with Joel, is the role they played in promulgating Kosher in the city of New Orleans. Having grown up in New Orleans during the late 70s and early 80s, when Kosher availability was minimal, I can attest to the fact that they were pioneers in the transformation of the Kosher scene in town.

During these last years, as Natalie battled for her life, hundreds, if not thousands of people prayed for her recovery, recited countless Psalms on her behalf, and increased their Tzedakah and good deeds in her merit. Torah classes were formed by her friends and many Mitzvahs came to the world to facilitate the recovery of Nechama Devorah bas Leah. All of this indicates how beloved Natalie was to so many people. However, does her passing mean that it was all for nothing. Were the prayers, Psalms, Torah study, good deeds and charity all wasted? Since we did not get the result that we wanted does that mean that it was all pointless and to no avail? G-d forbid – absolutely not!!

Firstly, who knows? Perhaps the added years that Natalie had with her loving husband and children, were the result of all of the prayers and goodness. Furthermore, the feeling of love and care from so many people will surely provide a measure of strength and comfort to her family. Finally, all of the sincere prayer and good deeds of these past years in Natalie’s merit, will serve her well in the world of truth, and will create a solid foundation for her children and family as they live life inspired by her example and the thousands of loving prayers and Mitzvahs of her friends all over the world.

Natalie Brown will be missed, as a wife, mother, daughter, sister, relative, friend and community member. Yet her life will serve as an inspiration for all of us. Surely about Natalie we can declare, “her memory will be blessed.” I am confident that Natalie continues the fight in Heaven as she stands before the Heavenly Throne asking G-d to have mercy on her sisters-in-suffering, in our community and around the world. Indeed Hashem, bring us to the time of no suffering and no illness, when “death will be removed forever and You will wipe the tears from upon all faces.”

To Joel and the family, know that we are here for you. May Hashem comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Closing Invocation at the 2011 Holocaust Memorial

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Closing Invocation – Holocaust Memorial - May 1, 2011 – New Orleans JCC - Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Eileh Toldot Noach, these are the Toldot of Noah. Eileh Toldot Yitzchak, these are the Toldot of Isaac. The book Genesis contains repeated mentions of Toldot. Our sages offer two applications of the word Toldot, offspring, and lasting good deeds or accomplishments.

I would like to highlight one element of the Holocaust, which often gets lost in the vastness of the tragedy. When Cain murdered Abel, Jewish tradition views it not only, as the murder of an individual, but the destruction of all of his potential offspring – in Abel’s case one third of the world’s population. In terms of the Holocaust, the extermination of six million of our brothers and sisters resulted in the destruction of one third of the Jewish people along with all their Toldot – their offspring – their future generations.

Furthermore, it resulted in the exceptional void of the Toldot - good that they would have contributed to the world. Imagine, six million people worth of Mitzvot. Six million people worth of Torah study. Six million people worth of goodness and kindness. Six million people making the world a better and more G-dly place.

When we say Yizkor, our aim is not only to remember, but also to fill the void of goodness and G-dliness left by the passing of our loved one. This is why we pledge to Tzedakah during Yizkor, so as to immediately act upon our commitment to filling the void with a Mitzvah.

As we gather to remember the lives of six million kedoshim – holy ones, we must commit ourselves to filling the void. My good friend, George Haas, native of Vienna who escaped just ahead of the war, sees each of his grandchildren as an answer to Hitler. Filling the void… Dr. Giselle Perl, a Hungarian doctor who performed abortions in Auschwitz to save women from Mengele’s murderous experiments, saw every Jewish child that she delivered after the war, as a life for a life. Filling the void… Nearly 70 years have passed and we have yet to even replace those that were lost, let alone their Toldot – their generations of offspring. We must fill the void…

At the same time there is also the void of the other Toldot, the Mitzvot, Torah and good deeds. We must do our part in filling the void of goodness and spirituality that was left by the Holocaust, one Mitzvah at a time. It is incumbent upon to us to do the work of six million holy souls in making the world a better and more G-dly place. In doing so, we will bring the world closer to the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, which we read on the last day of Passover, “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of G-d, as the waters cover the sea.” May this take place speedily in our days. Amen.

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