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Memories from the Summer of '92

Dear Friends,

In the 1940s the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe instituted that Yeshiva students utilize their vacation time to visit Jews in smaller Jewish communities to encourage them in their Jewishness by teaching, distributing books, doing Mitzvot and praying with the Jews of those communities, and helping them in any way possible. It would also be an invaluable life lesson for the students to meet Jews from outside their community and to get a sense of what Jewish life was like elsewhere. This project was called Merkos Shlichus. It continues to this day and a website www.RovingRabbis.com was set up to follow the blogs and adventures of current Yeshiva students who are “roving” the world.

This year we have a team of Roving Rabbis traveling through Louisiana, my brother Yosef Rivkin and his friend and study partner, Levi Gerlitzki. After spending last week running Project Talmud in New Orleans, this week was devoted to meeting Jews in Baton Rouge, Hammond, Alexandria, Ft. Polk, Monroe, Rayville with a few more stops planned for early next week. As I worked with them on planning their trip and developing contacts in some of those cities, it brought back memories of my own Merkos Shlichus experience nearly 20 years ago.

In the summer of 1992, three friends, Perry Lew, Mendy Schapiro and I decided to spend three weeks traipsing through Louisiana. We visited Shreveport, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Alexandria, Leesville, Ft. Polk and Monroe. We made some very good friends with whom we still have a warm relationship; Harry and Sue Muslow, then of Shreveport, and Saul and Raquel Hakim of Monroe.

We also met some very interesting people along the way. I would like to share a few memories. After doing a telephone interview with the Lafayette newspaper, we received a phone call from a fellow named Bo Levine. The name said it all. We met with Bo and his wife at their home in Lafayette until late into the night.

In Baton Rouge we had a live interview with the Advocate – article attached. Among the many others, we met with Paul Caplan, Rabbi of Beth Shalom, who had been bringing his confirmation class to Brooklyn each year, where they would visit Crown Heights and Chabad Headquarters.

In Alexandria we met the late Dr. Bernard Kaplan, who took great pride in showing us how he raised his children to be committed Jews even in a small community. In Monroe, we met the late Sol Rosenberg, a Holocaust survivor who was very active in the establishment of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC. We lay Tefillin with him and had an intense emotional discussion about how the Holocaust was being taught in certain Jewish circles.

In Shreveport we stayed with the Muslows and they hosted classes and discussions for the community each night. We met a man who was over 100 years old named Judah Wolfson. He was from Gomel, Ukraine, born to a prominent Chabad family. He shared memories of his youth, growing up in the Chabad community in Ukraine. He had some well-known Chabad relatives in Brooklyn, and on a visit there he had a meeting with the Rebbe.

All in all it was a privilege for us and a very significant experience in which we learned a lot about ourselves and hopefully touched the lives of the people we met. Today this project has expanded to international proportions. There are students visiting every imaginable Jewish community from small town USA to the furthest flung places around the world.

Have a wonderful Shabbos
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Merkos Shluchus Article.jpg 

A Tanya for Metairie

Dear Friends,

In December of 1796, a new work of Jewish thought was published, authored by one of the greatest minds of the time, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, founder of Chabad. In his great humility Rabbi Schneur Zalman titled the book, Lekutei Amarim – a collection of sayings. However it has come to be known as Tanya, after the opening word of the book. The author labored over the work for 20 years before bringing it to print. Several of his colleagues, the great Chassidic masters of the third generation, were extremely excited with the new work. One declared “that the author has managed to fit an infinitely great G-d into a small book.” Another said that “with this book we will be led out of exile,” an expression that was previously reserved for the Zohar. Within a few years the Tanya revolutionized the Jewish community of Russia and its impact was felt throughout Eastern Europe and beyond.

This forum is inadequate to convey the true depth of what the Tanya is all about. In short, the Tanya presents a systematic life path for a Jew, providing the tools for dealing with many of the conflicts that one faces in trying to have a real relationship with G-d.

Over the years the Tanya met with much opposition from within the Jewish world and without. The religious Jewish establishment felt threatened by the fledgling Chassidic movement and the Tanya was central to Chassidism’s intellectual appeal in Lithuania. The Haskala movement viewed the Tanya and its path as one of the greatest obstacles to “enlightenment” and assimilation. The Czarist government jumped onto the anti-Tanya bandwagon and the author was arrested, but ultimately vindicated and released.

The Tanya was published many times during the 19th and 20th centuries as the need arose. It’s been translated into multiple languages and scores of volumes of commentary have been written to make it more accessible to a wider audience. In early 1984, the Rebbe launched a campaign to have Tanyas printed all over the world. The idea was to bring an infusion of spiritual energy to each community. Until then there had been about 200 editions of the Tanya since its initial release in 1796. In that first year, over 1000 Tanyas were printed in cities around the world. The New Orleans Tanya was #245. Later that year, my father, Rabbi Zelig Rivkin, traveled to Jackson, MS and Little Rock, AR and had Tanyas printed there as well. In the summer of 1991, the Rebbe ascribed much importance to what he felt was a new frontier for teaching Tanya, upon the release of a Braille edition of the Tanya.

Now, 20 years and 4000 Tanyas later, Metairie, LA has its own Tanya. Tanyas will soon be released in Baton Rouge, Shreveport and more cities in Louisiana. May the light of Torah as illuminated by the teachings of the Tanya infuse our state and region with a spiritual energy boost that will propel us all toward the path of redemption through the coming of Moshiach.

Ah, the Good Old Days...

Dear Friends,

20 years ago I would have never imagined that I would be like this. However, I find myself looking at boys that are in Yeshiva and thinking, “Seize the opportunity for undisturbed learning now, for when later comes you will wish you had.” As students in Yeshiva we always dismissed older people when they made those types of statements. Now I think back nostalgically to the days when we could spend all day studying without having the responsibilities of a family, a job, a house, a car etc. Back then we didn’t even have cell phones or email to bother us. Nowadays learning for just an hour without a care is not even something to dream about.

The advantages of youth are wasted on the young. Perhaps it is the way of the world, that we do not appreciate something fully until it is no longer available to us. This is why I am excited to have our visiting Yeshiva students in town for Project Talmud. If I can’t have the luxury at least let me enjoy the sight of those that are taking full advantage of this special time in their lives.

I encourage everyone to utilize the time our community has with these Yeshiva students and come participate in some or all of the Project Talmud sessions. A few of this week’s highlights: (See below for a schedule.)

·         Sunday, August 14 9 AM – Breakfast and a class led by Yosef Rivkin on Resurrection in Jewish tradition. At 10 AM Levi Gerlitzki will discuss the Life and Legacy of Rabbi Akiva.

·         Tuesday, August 16 12 PM – Lunch N Learn with Yosef Rivkin downtown at New York Camera – 705 Canal St. Topic: Seeing Double: Analyzing the two sets of 10 Commandments as they appear in Exodus and Deuteronomy.

·         Wednesday, August 17 – Project Talmud travels to the Gulf Coast with two afternoon classes and an evening lecture.

All of the sessions are free and open to all. Please let us know which sessions you will be attending so we can prepare accordingly. To help sponsor Project Talmud – www.chabadneworleans.com/donate.

Three boys were born in the Chabad of Louisiana extended family this week. We wish warm Mazel Tovs to Hinda (Rivkin) and Sholom Pinson, Rachel and Eli Shoot, and Avigayil and Yechiam Cohen.

We also offer a farewell and good wishes to Sarah and Ilan Fuchs who departed from New Orleans this week on their way to their new home in Calgary.

Last but not least, this Sunday night @ 8:30 PM there will be a farbrengen at Chabad Uptown for the 15th of Av. We will be joining our good friend Yonatan Hodorov for a birthday celebration. We wish him a year of success and growth both materially and spiritually.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Getting Comfortable with the Beit Hamikdash

Dear Friends,

Several people have expressed to me over the years that they have some discomfort with the role of the Beit Hamikdash in Judaism. Some are bothered by the emphasis on a physical building. Others are uncomfortable with what they perceive as a veneration of the Temple (or even the Kotel today). One person pointed out that he could not relate to the Torah spending so much space on the seemingly mundane details of the Mishkan’s (portable Tabernacle in the desert) construction.

In truth, this question could be expanded to include all Mitzvot. Shouldn’t a religion be more about the mind, the heart, the soul? Why are our actions so important? Does it matter if my Mezuzah is made or parchment or paper? It is just a symbol of G-d’s presence in the home, for which paper is equally effective. Does it matter if the Mikvah water comes from a natural source or the tap? It is just a symbolic ritual purity for which any water should do. Why are the laws of Kosher and Shabbat so obsessed with minute details that seem so irrelevant to achieving the spirit of what those laws are meant to convey? A quick survey of the 613 Mitzvot will reveal that a disproportionate number of Mitzvot focus on the kitchen and the bedroom. Can it be that G-d is so concerned with these lowly areas of life?

To appreciate the answer to this challenge, one must become acquainted with the mystical approach to the purpose of creation and life. The Chassidic masters expound upon an enigmatic Midrash that states, that G-d created the universe for He desired a dwelling place in the lowest world. Simply put, G-d created a realm in which His presence would be concealed, where the inhabitants of this realm would not inherently sense their dependence on the creator. The concealment plan was to the extent that some could even deny His very existence. Why? So that human beings, using the tool that G-d provides – namely the Torah and Mitzvot – would succeed in stripping away the mask thereby exposing the reality of the world’s existence, which is G-dliness. This goal can only be achieved at the lowest levels of existence. This is why Mitzvot must be performed with physical objects. When we use them to serve G-d we elevate them to their true reality, G-dliness. A shofar used for the Mitzvah on Rosh Hashanah is no longer merely a ram’s horn, but a channel for G-dly energy. A Mezuzah is no longer a piece of animal skin, but a channel for G-dly energy. When we do Mitzvot we prove that the concealment within the physicality of the world is only a mirage, that when stripped away is shown to be dominated and overpowered by G-dliness and spirituality.

The ultimate expression of this idea was the Beit Hamikdash. Here we had a building of stone, full of utensils of fashioned of wood and metal, in which humans used animals and plant matter to worship G-d. Seems to be a mundane place, full of mundane activity. Yet, the greatest revelations of G-dliness were experienced in this place, including supernatural events that proved the domination of the G-dly over the physical. For example, the ark was 2.5 cubits wide and it stood in the center of a room that was 20 cubits wide. Yet when one measured from each side of the ark to the nearest wall it would still be 10 cubits instead of 8.75. In other words, it occupied space and did not occupy space at the same time.

On a micro level, each Mitzvah that we do, when we follow the instruction given to us in the Torah, has the same impact. This is why the focus is on action, and the details are important. How does one sustain the inspiration necessary to accomplish this and to live in such a focused manner? The answer can be found in the vision of Ezekiel. He describes G-d’s Throne of Glory. He talks about angels running there and coming back. In Kabbalistic terms Ratzo and Shuv - “running there and coming back” represent two modes. “Running there” is escaping from the corporeal to become absorbed into the spiritual. “Coming back” is realizing that the whole purpose of spiritual ecstasy is to then channel that experience into action as a physical person, thereby transforming the world into a G-dly place. This is a cornerstone of the Chassidic ideal for Jewish life. The purpose of life is action – Shuv. But in order to do so one must also have Ratzo – spiritual immersion. Ratzo is experienced through prayer, meditation, Torah study and the like. Shuv means living out the daily grind as G-d wants us to, all while elevating and transforming everything that we encounter along the way.

As we observe the period of mourning for the Beit Hamikdash these ideas become even more poignant. It is our hope that collectively we plug into the power of Ratzo in order to Shuv and bring the world over the hump of exile to the time of ultimate G-dly revelation, with the coming of Moshiach and the era of universal redemption.

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