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The Gift of Selflessness

The opening theme of this week’s Parsha is the subject of an interesting Talmudic comment on the book of Genesis. As Avraham is engaged in a dialogue with G-d about the destruction of Sodom, he declares before G-d “I am but dust and ashes.” The sage Rava comments, “In the merit of Avraham declaring “I am but dust and ashes” his children were given two Mitzvot, the ashes of the Red Heifer and the dust of the Sotah water.”

The Rebbe argues that the association between the deed and the reward goes beyond the “ashes and dust” component with each, but rather there is a deeper thematic connection.

Avraham exhibited a willingness to help others even at his own expense, physically and spiritually. He risked his life fighting against four mighty kings to save Lot. He was generous to others even at a time when he had no means with which to do so. He was hospitable to wayfarers who he perceived as idolators, even at the expense of cutting short his time with the Divine Presence. He challenged G-d to save even the wicked population of Sodom.

The reward is two Mitzvot that embody that selflessness. The Mitzvah of the Parah Adumah – Red Heifer is a total paradox. On one hand it brings purity to one who has been in contact with a corpse, representing the ultimate disconnect from the Source of Life. On the other hand, each Kohen involved in the preparation of the Red Heifer mixture became ritually impure. The demonstrates that one must be so devoted to the wellbeing of others, even someone who appears to be unworthy, and even at the expense of their own detriment.

Similarly, regarding the Mitzvah of the Sotah waters, Hashem allows for the ink containing His name to be erased, generally a severe transgression, for the sake of potentially restoring peace between husband and wife. With this Mitzvah, Hashem is demonstrating the same devotion to the wellbeing of others who may be regarded as unworthy, even when there is a spiritual “cost” to that devotion.

This worldview is something the Rebbe modeled and encouraged others to live by. One must be ready to risk something of their own to help another. In fact, this is so fundamental to the Rebbe’s approach, that he understands it to be a gift from G-d when one finds it within himself to act selflessly for others, even at a cost to oneself. Rather than seeing this as a “necessary compromise,” it is to be embraced as a loving gift from Hashem.

I am grateful to have been touched by the Rebbe’s encouragement to embrace the gift of meaningful living for the sake of helping someone else. To quote Hayom Yom of Sivan 28, “You only need the main thing - to help another wholeheartedly, with sensitivity, to take pleasure in doing a kindness for another.”

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Overcoming My Blood Type

My blood type is B-Negative. My natural inclination is to follow my blood type and “B-Negative” about life. However, I try hard to adapt to my wife’s blood type and “B-Positive.” Why? For starters, it is a much better mindset to live with. What is the point of being mired in misery when you can be positive and optimistic? Beyond that, positivity is also a powerful engine of productivity. But there is an even deeper truth about positivity as we will soon demonstrate.

What motivates me to stay focused on positivity? The Rebbe, his message, and the example he displayed with his approach to everything in the universe, from people to events to history to philosophy. A book called Positivity Bias articulates the Rebbe’s optimism. (More on the book at www.chabadneworleans.com/4382048.)

In a recent email exchange with a member of our community, we were discussing an article that conveyed the Rebbe’s analysis of how events in history reflect anecdotes in the Torah, and the same mistakes are made over again. My friend pointed out that all the historical facts adduced in the article, point to a pessimistic view, that we will continue to struggle with the same problems over and over, and that only by getting to the deeper layer and the spiritual values will any real progress be made.

I added that while there can be pessimism when considering the "rinse, lather, repeat" nature of history and our repeated failure to learn from it, the Rebbe refused to resign himself to that and continued to press for a reversal with real hope that it was achievable. This is one of the reasons that I am honored to be associated with Chabad and the Rebbe's work. The sheer force of his contagious optimism is very powerful and motivating.  

The question is, is this positivity a pipe dream? Is it just a gimmick to keep us motivated? Is there a realistic element to positivity or is it just “offering hope?” The deeper truth that the Rebbe conveys is that “Positivity” is the lens through which G-d sees us and the rest of the world He created. As such, there is nothing more true or pragmatic than a positive and optimistic perspective.

It has been thirty years since we last saw the Rebbe. A full generation has been born and raised. Those kids are having kids of their own. Yet these young people are aflame with their devotion to the Rebbe, his message, and his call for each of us to play a role in revealing the inherent goodness and G-dliness in our world. Indeed, the Rebbe’s “Positivity Bias” has been victorious. We are about to cross over into the era that the Rebbe envisioned. He spent a lifetime communicating to us the integral role we play in bringing our world to a state of Redemption. That moment is within reach. May we experience the coming of Moshiach very soon.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin    

 

How Holiness Lives

When you hear the word Kedusha - holiness, what come to mind? Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh – Holy Holy Holy, L-rd of Hosts? The Aron Hakodesh - Holy Ark? The Beit Hamikdash - Holy Temple? Shabbat Kodesh – The Holy Sabbath? Ir Hakodesh – The holy city of Jerusalem. Kedoshim - Holy souls who gave their lives to sanctify G-d’s name? A holy Rabbi? An other-worldly meditation that makes a person’s spirit soar beyond the doldrums of daily life?

These are accurate. Etymologically, Kadosh means something set aside from the ordinary, generally used in an exalted context. Yet, we find something fascinating in the Torah, which is even more amplified by Maimonides.

The Rambam wrote a 14-volume code of Jewish Law entitled, Mishna Torah. Each volume has a unique name. The volumes that we are currently studying is titled Kedusha – Holiness. Based on the above assertions about holiness, one would presume that this volume deals with the loftiest areas of Jewish life, foundational beliefs and practices. In actuality, it covers two areas of Jewish law, eating and marital intimacy. The same is true for Parshat Kedoshim in the book of Leviticus that deals a lot with everyday life as directed by Torah. Tangentially, this caused ignorant foes of the Jewish people to describe Judaism as a religion obsessed with the kitchen and the bedroom.

Why does a holiness doctrine spill so much ink about what we eat and who we sleep with?

The answer to this lies in the mystery of G-d’s purpose for creating the universe. G-d desired that humans transform this world of concealment into a dwelling for Him. This cannot be done solely through lofty pursuits that pull us away from everyday life. Instead, we must also infuse the mundane, the corporeal, with holiness. It is not enough to be holy when wrapped in a Talis praying in the Synagogue. It is not enough to be holy when delving into the Wisdom of G-d’s Torah. It is not enough to be holy on Yom Kippur, Shabbat, and other Holy Days of the year.

We know holiness is real when it defines how we behave in the kitchen and the bedroom. We know holiness is real when it shapes our business practices and social lives. G-d declared, “Make for Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell within them. G-d wishes to dwell within each of us, and in every element of our lives. Of course, our Synagogues and Study Halls are a sanctuary for G-d. We know the Sanctuary of our lives is real when that holiness spills over into the rest of life. The kitchen is a Beit Hamikdash. The bedroom is a Beit Hamikdash. The office is a Beit Hamikdash.

How does this fit with the etymology of Kadosh? It is about “setting aside” and elevating the ordinary and rendering it extraordinary. This is one of the reasons that the Rebbe objected to term used for non-observant Jews in Israel – Chiloni. The literal meaning is mundane or absent of holiness. There is no such Jew. We are all inherently holy and living on a trajectory of injecting that holiness into wherever we are found.

Shabbat Shalom my holy brothers and sisters! Best of luck in our shared quest for discovering and infusing holiness into every aspect of our lives.

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

My Take on the 10 Commandments Controversy

Louisiana’s mandate to place a Ten Commandments placard in state funded school classrooms is at the top of the news cycle right now. I am by no means a legal expert or a constitutional scholar, so any comments I offer are strictly in the context of the Torah angle on this question, primarily as elucidated by the Rebbe’s insights on related matters.

I do not believe that the first amendment intended to remove G-d from public discourse. We must certainly protect against the encroachment of one religion on the rights of others. Yet, that doesn’t mean G-d is a dirty word, or that G-d centered morality should be taboo. For a broader treatment of this issue, please see an article I wrote two years ago on a related matter: https://www.chabadneworleans.com/templates/blog/post.asp?aid=1203266&PostID=108996&p=1

Regarding the Ten Commandments issue, there are several points to consider. Firstly, while we Jews are in possession of the original iteration of the passage known as the Ten Commandments, other faith traditions have a different way of listing them than we do. This is primarily due to the fact that we consider, “I am the L‑rd your G‑d, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” to be commandment number one, while it is not regarded as its own passage in most or all of the Christian versions. (Not surprising seeing that they were not slaves in Egypt…) They end up splitting up one of two later passages to compensate for the lost first passage. So, any standard issue placard would end up having to choose one version over another, and that is problematic.

(As an aside, in Hebrew they not referred to as “Mitzvot” - commandments but rather as “Dibrot”, meaning passages or statements. Technically there are more than ten commandments in the Ten Commandments… but that is for another discussion.)

Beyond this, there is also a theological question of whether all the Ten Commandments are universally applicable. It is safe to argue that according to Jewish law at least one of them (Sanctify the Sabbath) was given exclusively to the Jewish people. While the message of Shabbat as affirming a belief in creation has universal application, the practice of Shabbat is a uniquely Jewish heritage. In fact, we say in our prayers on Shabbat “You have not given the Sabbath to the nations of the world... You have given it in love to Your people Israel, the descendants of Jacob…”  

The alternative might be a placard displaying the Seven Universal Noahide Laws. After the flood G-d issued a universal moral code to Noah and his children that would be forever incumbent upon all of humanity. These seven principles are the true bedrock for all future moral and lawful societies.

For a comprehensive explanation of these principles, see Seven Laws for a Beautiful Planet: www.chabadneworleans.com/4157474.

In brief they are: 1. Rejection of idolatry. 2. Prohibition of blasphemy. 3. Respect for human life - prohibition of murder. 4. Respect for marriage - prohibition of sexual immorality. 5. Respect for property rights – prohibition against theft and dishonesty. 6. Respect for resources – prohibition against cruelty to animals by eating of an animal while it is still alive. 7. The obligation to establish a moral justice system.

Yet, in an instructive letter to President Ronald Reagan in 1982, the Rebbe did connect the Seven Noahide Laws to the “universal moral code of the Ten Commandments.” Here is an excerpt of that letter.

“By focusing attention on "the ancient ethical principles and moral values which are the foundation of our character as a nation," and on the time-honored truth that "education must be more than factual enlightenment - it must enrich the character as well as the mind, while reaffirming the eternal validity of the G-d-given Seven Noahide Laws (with all their ramifications) for people of all faiths - you have expressed most forcefully the real spirit of the American nation.

More than ever before the civilized world of today will look up to the United States of America for guidance as behooves the world's foremost Super Power - not merely in the ordinary sense of this term but even more importantly, as a moral and spiritual Super Power, whose real strength must ultimately derive from an unalterable commitment to the universal moral code of the Ten Commandments. Indeed, it is this commitment to the same Divine truths and values that, more than anything else, unites all Americans in the true sense of E Pluribus Unum.”

So, while technically the Ten Commandments may not be universally relevant, and it may be problematic to display them due to the discrepancy in how they are listed according to various faith traditions, nevertheless it is valuable for Americans to otherwise recognize that our moral foundation is the commitment to Divine Truths articulated in the passages we call the Ten Commandments.

We yearn for the time, the era of Redemption described by Maimonides when, “The one preoccupation of the entire world will be solely to know G‑d… as it is said: “The earth shall be full with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the sea!”

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin    

 

Stuck on Mt. Sinai?

It was a day or two after Shavuot during the lifetime of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak. He was approached by an aide with a question concerning the administrative affairs of the Chabad movement that he led. The Previous Rebbe replied, “I have not yet descended from Mt. Sinai; I cannot deal with this issue right now.”

Most of us didn’t necessarily feel like we climbed Mt. Sinai to begin with over Shavuot; and we certainly don’t feel like we are still “up there” now that the holiday has ended. Yet, the story can give us some things to contemplate as we transition from the holiday to “everyday life.”

Do we sufficiently appreciate the greatest contract that was ever made between Al-mighty G-d and humanity?

Do we sufficiently appreciate having been addressed directly and individually by G-d, Who declared Anochi, I am the L-rd your (individual) G-d?

Do we sufficiently appreciate that the term Anochi implies that Hashem inscribed himself into the Torah, and by learning we can connect directly to Him?

Do we sufficiently appreciate the empowerment with which the Torah imbues us vis-à-vis our impact on our universe?

Do we sufficiently appreciate the power of a Mitzvah post Sinai, and the connectivity that it affords us with Hashem?

Do we sufficiently appreciate the moral clarity offered by the Torah, the word of the Creator?

Do we sufficiently appreciate the sheer breadth of wisdom contained within the Torah, from Scripture to Talmud, Midrash, Kabbala, Legal Codes, Ethics and Philosophy, Chassidic thought, all accessible to us if we just commit the time to study?

Do we sufficiently appreciate this most wonderful gift that Hashem gave us on Shavuot, and continues to give us each and every day?

Maybe just thinking about these ideas can propel us back up that mountain for a moment. As we make our way down and look towards the horizon of life, we walk with an uplifted heart, a lighter step, and resoluteness of purpose knowing that tools for success are securely in our hands.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

A Tribute to Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky

This week the Chabad movement and the Jewish world suffered a major loss, with the passing of Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky. To read more about him www.chabadneworleans.com/6463934.

His official title was vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. But he was much more than that. In 1970 the Rebbe identified Rabbi Kotlarsky as a person that can serve in a capacity of trustworthiness and responsibility. His remarkable people skills, his ability to assess a situation, his expertise in developing partnerships with philanthropists, and his absolute devotion to the Rebbe’s cause, put him in position to serve as the Rebbe’s liaison to communities around the world. He was the advance scout for the Chabad movement, forging connections that would enable a Chabad center to be established in a particular location. His interest in each Chabad center and the Shluchim couples who staffed them continued long after those initial years of development. When the Kinus Hashluchim (annual Shluchim conference) started in the 1980s, he was the driving force behind it. Today it has become one of the premier Jewish events of the year, drawing 6,000 attendees. Rabbi Kotlarsky is synonymous with the event.

He was a master fundraiser, who used his skills to create partnerships that would bring in hundreds of millions of dollars for Chabad institutions and initiatives. Organizations such as Chabad on Campus, Chabad Young Professionals, CTeens and CKids, Chabad on Call, Chabad in the Former Soviet Union, Chabad in the Far East, Chabad in Africa, are all the beneficiaries of his vision and organizational skills, not to mention the access to the funds needed to launch each of them. His caring for the Shluchim families led him to establish funds to help them in their personal lives, with their simchas and their times of need.  

He was a person who simply cared for others. While globetrotting on behalf of the Rebbe, he was able to maintain personal relationships with innumerable people. He truly rejoiced at the good fortune of his fellow; and was sincerely pained by their suffering or loss. Over the last 50 years he was personally involved in helping individuals with a wide variety of issues, ranging from conflict resolution to financial crisis to family health challenges. His home was wide open to guests. His son-in-law shared that he once observed a visitor to their Sukkah, one of dozens present at the table, who had no idea who his host was, ask Reb Moshe to move because he was sitting in his place!

Rabbi Kotlarsky was my father’s childhood friend. He was the person who traveled with my father to New Orleans in advance of the establishment of Chabad of Louisiana in 1975. He introduced my father to the initial supporters of Chabad, whom he had met on an earlier visit to NOLA, people like Rabbi Jeffrey Bienenfeld, Maurice Handleman, Joe Nelkin, Sam Katz, and Israel Goldberg, just to name a few. He would reconnect with them on subsequent visits to New Orleans. Amazingly, although he did the same for hundreds of communities around the world, he had a knack for remembering names and faces. He would often inquire about their wellbeing when he saw one of us in New York. He returned to New Orleans many times for our family Simchas, a bris, a bar mitzvah, a wedding. When New Orleans hosted the Southeast Regional Conference of Chabad Shluchim, he participated in the conference. He would come to every family simcha in New York without fail, even when he was battling the illness that would ultimately take his life.

Rabbi Kotlarsky facilitated the connection between the Rohr Family and Chabad at Tulane, resulting in the Rohr Family Chabad Student Center.

After Hurricane Katrina, he facilitated major grants to Chabad of Louisiana, enabling us to help the many people that we did following the storm.

Following Hurricane Ida, when the Shluchim of Louisiana were fully immersed in hurricane relief efforts, he saw to it that each of us would be assisted in dealing with the damage we confronted in our homes. I wrote him an email on behalf of our group thanking him for taking an interest in our personal lives. I was in New York a short while later and met him at a wedding. He thanked me for what he called “the appreciated, though unnecessary, note of thanks that I wrote to him.

This is just his connection with Chabad in Louisiana. The amazing thing is that there are hundreds of other communities that shared similar experiences with him.

I can declare with confidence that in the last 30 years, there is not a single individual who done more to advance the Rebbe’s vision and mission than Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky. His passing leaves a great void. His friendship and caring will be missed. His family and colleagues have undertaken to continue his legacy of devotion to the Rebbe’s cause and the Rebbe’s Shluchim. These efforts will be headed by his son, Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky. May Hashem grant them unimaginable success. May we soon experience the realization of that vision with the coming of Mashiach speedily.

If you would like to be a partner in the campaign to continue his work, www.rebmosheslegacy.com.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Who Are You Really?

How do you view your Jewish identity? Is it like clothing that you can remove and change at will? Today you wear the blue shirt, tomorrow it is the green one. Or is it an inseparable part of you, like your skin, or perhaps even a vital organ such as the heart or the brain?

Is our Jewishness an aspect of who we are, among many? We have our professions, our social affiliations, our alma maters, our family dynamics; and we also have our religious/ethnic/cultural identities as Jews. Or is our Jewishness the definition of our identities, upon which all other aspects of ourselves are overlaid?

Our sages employ the metaphor of a letter of the Torah to describe the identity of each Jew. That can go two ways. When a letter is inked onto parchment, the two entities fuse together. However, the ink and parchment are essentially distinct from each other, and can even be separated. The ink may fade or be scratched off, leaving the parchment unaffected by what was once there but is now missing. The other option is to engrave a letter onto stone. When that happens the letter and the stone are inseparable. One cannot erase the letter without impacting the stone.

Chassidus maintains that our Jewish identities are like the engraved letter. We can never lose our identity. It cannot even fade. All that can happen is that some dirt gets caught in the grooves of the engraved letter and must be removed, thereby revealing what was intact beneath it the entire time.

Now the question becomes, can we live our lives in such a way that our Judaism is engraved within us as well? This is the meaning of the opening verse of this week’s Parsha – “Im Bechukotai Teileichu.” Bechukotai is translated as my suprarational commands, the Mitzvot for which we have no compelling explanation beyond obedience to G-d. However, at its root, Bechukotai is related to the Hebrew word for engraved, “Chakuk.” This means that Hashem is imploring us to view our commitment to the Torah and Mitzvot as engraved within us, something which is immutable. When we experience our relationship to Torah and Mitzvot as “engraved,” there is nothing that supersedes that commitment, nor is there a space or time in our lives that is not shaped by Torah.

This is a life that is not conflicted or compartmentalized. All aspects of the person’s life are in harmony because they are defined by the underlying identity and commitment that is at the core of everything we do and experience.

This commitment brings the promise of blessings from Hashem stated in the parsha. “I will walk among you and be your G-d, and you will be My people.” “I will turn towards you, and I will make you fruitful and increase you, and I will set up My covenant with you.” “I will give your rains in their time, the Land will yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit.” “I will grant peace in the Land.”

May it take place speedily, Amen.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Obsessed with Jews

Disclaimer: This is not a political commentary.

This week I read two news stories (among many) that struck me as absurd. It seems the world has gone “meshuga.”

One was an article that reported on a certain member of the US Senate accusing Israel of creating “the worst humanitarian disaster in modern history.” Not sure how he defines modern history, but I can think of a few disasters that he may want to consider. The Holocaust, Soviet oppression, oppression by China, North Korea, Cambodia, the massacres in Rwanda, Darfur, and Syria, just to name a few.

The second article quoted a Hamas spokesperson complaining to Reuters about the ICC prosecutor seeking arrest warrants for both Israeli and Hamas leaders. He objected on the grounds that the warrant, “equates the victim with the executioner.” He is absolutely correct in a technical sense, just not in the way he intends it.

Why is the world so obsessed with this conflict? Why are so many who are usually dispassionate when it comes to other conflicts and crises, suddenly up in arms regarding Israel. We did not see this degree of obsession against Hamas following the attack on October 7. A million deaths and a refugee crisis in Syria; the world is silent. 800,000 dead in Rwanda; crickets. Uyghurs are being slaughtered in China; nobody gives a hoot. Etc., etc., etc.!

The are less UN resolutions addressing all those conflicts combined than the ones calling out Israel.

We cannot say that it is about the Palestinians, because nobody says boo when they are mistreated by Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and other Arab countries. In fact, Egypt has a solution to protecting civilian lives in Gaza, but hardly a peep at their sealed checkpoint.

So, it must be an obsession with Jews. Only when Jews are involved in the conflict does it become a big deal. It appears that the world puts us on a pedestal and wants to hold us to a different standard. (This does not mean that I in any way agree with their misguided conclusions about the current conflict in Gaza.)

What’s the deal? What are we to make of it? What are we to do about it?

3,336 years ago, we stood at the foot of a mountain somewhere between Egypt and the Promised Land. G-d announced to us for all to hear “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Maybe we need to take a page from the antisemitic playbook of obsession with Jews. Let’s get obsessed with who we need to be as a “Kingdom of Priests” and a “Holy Nation.” Have we been trying too hard to assimilate? Have we been sufficiently focused on the role that G-d has conferred upon us to be “a light unto the nations;” a role model of morality and holiness? When we try to escape our identity, we get reminded in the least preferable manner. We can either garner obsessive respect or obsessive hate and resentment. We ultimately determine whether Jew is a designation of admiration or a title of scorn.

The anniversary of that declaration by G-d at Sinai is coming up in a few weeks. We must embrace our status as a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.” Royalty has standards. Holiness has structured parameters. Just Jew It!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Education: Indoctrination or Empowerment?

The opening verse of this week’s Parsha has G-d telling Moses, “Speak to the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them.” It then goes on to give the admonition to the Kohanim to avoid ritual impurity associated with a corpse. Rashi cites the sages to explain the double expression, “speak to the Kohanim and say to them,” that this is to instruct the adults that they must educate the minors about this principle.

What can you teach a three-year-old Kohen about ritual impurity? He does not understand the underlying reasons for this command. He can merely be taught that “the boys in our family don’t engage in these behaviors.” As he gets older and learns to appreciate his special status, he can begin to understand why he must behave in this way.

There is a school of thought that maintains that giving a child religious instruction is indoctrination. Rather, they argue, wait until the child grows up and he or she can choose on their own whether they wish to pursue this religious doctrine and discipline.

Personally, I believe that this could not be further from the truth. Parents that neglect to share values with their child, especially religious values, are putting their child at a moral and behavioral disadvantage. Instead, I view an education based on Jewish values and morals as empowerment of the child. We are teaching them behaviors and values that will establish them in good stead for life. Would those parents say the same about teaching their child how to put on their shoes, or with regards to toilet training? If we believe that Jewish values are imperative for ourselves and our families, we must begin imparting them even at the earliest age by way of behaviors.

Yesterday I decided to demonstrate this by experimenting with three of my children. My two-and-a-half-year-old asked me for some water. I said to him, “What do we say before drinking the water?” He rattled off the blessing that we have been training him to say. Did he understand why he must say the blessing or what it means? Not at all. He just knows that this is what we do.

Later in the day, I was talking to my five-year-old and I asked him, “Why do we make a bracha (blessing) before eating or drinking?” He replied, "To put another brick on the Beit Hamikdash.” (To help bring the Redemption.) I asked, “But why do we have to specifically make a bracha before we eat or drink?” He said, “Because it is a Mitzvah.” I replied, “Why is making a bracha before eating a Mitzvah”? He answered, “Because Hashem said so.” I asked, “Why does Hashem tell us to make a bracha before eating?” He said, “Tell me.” So, I explained, “Before we enjoy things that Hashem created for us, we are supposed to thank Him for giving them to us.” He was happy to learn and understand.

An hour later, my seven-year-old asked me to help her get some water. I asked her, “Why do we make a bracha (blessing) before eating or drinking?” She replied without hesitation, “Before we enjoy things that Hashem created for us, we are supposed to thank Him for giving them to us.”

We see empowerment developing within these children. They relate to the value at an age-appropriate level. The two-year-old knows the behavior. The five-year-old has a vague idea of the value behind it but has not fully grasped it. The seven-year-old has it down pat.

I often hear from guests at our Shabbat table, how impressed they are with our children’s knowledge of the Parsha and Judaism in general. They feel like these 5 or 7 or 9 year olds are more advanced than they are. I explain that this is not an indication of their intelligence (though I think they are all brilliant, thank G-d…), it is an indication of the early start they have been given on absorbing these behaviors, values, and ideas.

Our enemies have always known that “if there are no kids, there will be no goats.” It is time that we learned this lesson and ascribe the highest priority to educating our children in the values and behaviors of Judaism, thereby ensuring successful Jewish continuity.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Is Judaism Too Intrusive?

Did you know that there are 51 mitzvot in this week’s Parsha. They address areas of life such as eating, marriage, business, agriculture, social responsibilities, body care, family dynamics, interpersonal relationships, and much more. And that’s just 51 of the 613 total number of Mitzvot in the Torah.

There are different ways of viewing this phenomenon. It might seem like Halacha - Jewish law is a little too intrusive. It could appear that religion is being used to control the masses. Why does it matter what I eat? Why does it matter what I do in the privacy of my home? How can the method for tying my shoelaces be of interest to G-d? As long as I am a good person and don’t harm anyone else, why should G-d care about my personal choices?

Looking at it from a different perspective… G-d created us and the world around us and knows exactly what is needed to live an optimal life. Do we question the user’s manual of a car when we are told to use unleaded fuel only? Would someone say, “even though General Motors tells me that leaded fuel is harmful for my car… my car, my choice?” Do we call the doctor intrusive when we are advised of lifestyle choices to improve our quality of life? Would an astronaut question any of the strict requirements involved in space travel? Would we rip the label off the mattress despite the stern warning that doing so is illegal? (Ok, maybe not that one.)

Furthermore, as the name of our Parsha (Kedoshim) indicates, G-d is providing us with a “holiness doctrine.” If you want to live a holy life that is G-dlike, these are the instructions for accomplishing your goal. When we are talking about G-dly living, there is nothing that is superfluous or arbitrary. Every movement that I make, every word that I utter, every thought that I consider, has a role in this life of holiness. As such, rather than feeling intruded upon by all these Mitzvot and laws, I feel privileged that G-d cares so much about me that He shared with me what it means to live G-dly.  

So Halacha – Jewish law is a guidebook for living 24/7/365. There is Halachic input for every single aspect of life. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in life that is not governed by Torah’s illuminated, life-giving path of truth.  

If you are intrigued by this idea and would like to learn more about it, a four-part series on how Halacha informs difficult medical decisions is beginning this coming week. Decisions of Fate, our JLI spring course launches this Wednesday. Feel free to try out the first class on Wednesday night at 7 pm, no commitment required. If you would like to register for the course, go to www.chabadneworleans.com/jli. We are also offering a Thursday lunchtime class downtown at the offices of Egenberg Trial Lawyers. This course offers both CME and CLE credits. Chabad of Metairie is offering this course on Tuesdays. For more information, www.jewishlouisiana.com/jli.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

We can’t just kvetch, we must also sing!

It was a strange Pesach dynamic that we just finished this week. Against the backdrop of the hostages, the war in Israel, the assaults against Jews around the world, including in American “Institutions of Higher Learning,” and the cacophony of condemnation of Jews and Israel for daring to engage in self-defense, celebrating a festival of freedom seemed to be a stretch. As one Israel meme put it, “The Chag is not “sameach” and the Seder is not “beseder.”

On the other hand, we are a nation that celebrates our intrinsic freedom at the soul level for millennia, including under the most challenging of circumstances. Furthermore, the miracles of G-d’s protection throughout this war abound.  

So, we celebrated Pesach. We sat at the Seder. We ate the Shmurah Matzah and drink four cups of wine. We recited the passages in the Haggadah. The question is, did we do more kvetching or more singing? When we read V’hi She’amdah, reciting “in every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand!” did we emphasize the first half of the sentence, or did we emphasize the second half?

On one hand, we should be wringing our hands over the vicious and vacuous protests that are taking place on college campuses around the country. (Tangent: It is high time for a serious conversation on the value our society ascribes to the “college experience.” If this is what our universities are producing, we may want to rethink the trillions invested. Instead of teaching young people how to be thinking and productive members of society, they are turned into mindless zombies, blindly following the social mores du jour, even when those values are immoral and destabilizing.)

On the other hand, have we talked enough about the amazing miracles that took place in response to Iranian attack. Each of the weapons they launched was capable of wreaking mass casualties and destruction. That every component of the missile defense system, including the assistance of the “friendly” neighboring countries, should go off without a hitch, is a miracle of the highest order. Experts in the field have observed that even 90% success would have been off the charts. Imagine the destruction that could have been caused by the remaining 10%. To quote the “paper of record” in 1967, “It is a miracle of Biblical proportions.”

We must not let our guard down, and we must valiantly triumph against the scourge of antisemitism. We must do everything within our power to win the war and bring the hostages home. We must also project positivity and remain focused on praising G-d for the miracles that He does for us.

We can’t just kvetch, we must also sing!

Earlier this week Mrs. Rosina Slater passed away. She was a holocaust survivor who lived in Israel for years and then moved to New Orleans, where she was a successful businesswoman for decades. Rosina did not have children. In 2018 she made a very significant gift to Torah Academy to ensure that Jewish children in New Orleans would have a place to receive an education based on Torah values. The school is now known as Slater Torah Academy. The students and alumni knew her as Bubby Rosina.

The Baal Shem Tov once instructed a childless couple to invest in the education of their Jewish community, quoting this verse from Isaiah 56:5, “I will give them in My house and in My walls “yad vashem” (commemoration), better than sons and daughters; an everlasting name I will give him, which will not be discontinued.”

Through the sweet sounds of children learning Torah in New Orleans, the memory of Rosina (Raizel bat Shlomo) will endure as a blessing in our community.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin    

Who Wouldn't Want Matzah?

A philanthropist once asked the Rebbe for guidance stating that he wished to fund a “major project” and he wanted the Rebbe’s advice as to which project to get behind. He assumed the Rebbe would direct him to a building project or major new undertaking that Chabad was initiating. The Rebbe’s reply was “if you wish to get involved in a “major project” then fund the distribution of Shmurah Matzah before Pesach.

Today is the Rebbe’s birthday. Chabad of Louisiana and our affiliates around the state are very proud to gift to the Rebbe that in Louisiana nearly 2,000 Jewish households received Shmurah Matzah. Teams of volunteers assisted the Shluchim of New Orleans, Metairie, and Baton Rouge in this effort. May everyone who was involved in this project be blessed knowing that the Rebbe considers this a “major project.”

The vast majority of recipients responded positively when the volunteers arrived at their homes. We hope that these packages of Shmurah Matzah will grace the Seder tables of Jewish households throughout the state. We did encounter the sad image of enemy flags flying in front of several households in our community. The juxtaposition of that symbol flying alongside a Mezuzah, with a box of Shmurah Matzah on the doorstep, may just be one of the stranger images of this season.

We also encountered some Jews who have gotten involved in other religions. That is a painful thought, especially at this time of year, when our ancestors were killed and persecuted during blood libels while being falsely accused by some members of those same faiths.

The Zohar says that Matzah is Food of Faith and Food of Healing. May Hashem bring healing and faith to all those who have “wandered off” in one direction or another.

The most curious reaction was from those who declined the packages of Matzah. While most were polite and friendly, we did get some harsh responses. One individual was particularly angry in their reaction. When I inquired as to the reason for the antipathy, the individual replied that “when the Witnesses or the Latter Day Saints come to the door I can ignore them or tell them I am not interested. But when Chabad comes, that means somebody is assuming what I should believe and what I should be doing and trying to impose their practices on me.”

I actually found that fascinating. If this individual really didn’t care they would just ignore the delivery like they do when the other groups come. For some reason the delivery of Jewish paraphernalia touched them deeply enough to be upset by it. Perhaps the Neshama doesn’t allow them to just blow it off. Either you embrace or reject, you cannot just be apathetic or dispassionate about something Jewish.

May the day come when all Jews are passionately embracing of their Yiddishkeit, infused with faith, joy, and meaning.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin     

A Dayenu Introspective

One of the more joyous moments of the Seder is singing Dayenu, during which we express our profound gratitude for 15 acts of kindness that G-d showed us in association with the Exodus.

They are: He has brought us out of Egypt, and carried out judgments against them, and against their idols, and smote their first-born, and gave us their wealth, and split the sea for us, and took us through it on dry land, and drowned our oppressors in it, and supplied our needs in the desert for forty years, and fed us the manna, and gave us the Shabbat, and brought us before Mount Sinai, and gave us the Torah, and brought us into the land of Israel and built for us the Holy Temple.

The Maharal (R’ Yehuda Lowe of Prague) in his commentary to the Haggadah points out that the 15 clauses of Dayenu can be categorized into three themes. The first five, that are directly connected to the Exodus, are about our becoming a nation, Am Yisrael.

The second five are about the miracles that G-d performed for us during our 40 years journey through the wilderness. They demonstrate that we are not a people subject to the laws of nature, rather we are a miraculous nation.

The third set of five are about the spiritual gifts that G-d gave us, allowing us to have a relationship with Him. These convey that our nation, which is supernatural, has a purpose.

To sum it up it would be 1. That we are. 2. How we are. 3. Why we are.

The Passover Seder is not merely about historical reminiscence. Rather, we are meant to internalize the meaning of all that we recall and apply them in our contemporary lives.

As we sing Dayenu this year, let us recall that we are a nation, Am Yisrael. We are one people, and we need to be united with each other in harmony. We are a miraculous people. We have survived 3,500 years of repeated attempts at annihilation. (Can anyone spell genocide?) We are here to tell the story, while our oppressors have been relegated to the ash-heap of history. We will survive this current attempt as well because “Am Yisrael Chai.” We must also remember that our peoplehood, and our miraculous survival and thriving, must be infused with purpose. Those gifts which were given by G-d to our ancestors, the Shabbat, Revelation, the Torah, the Land of Israel, and the worship of the Holy Temple, are what make our lives meaningful and purposeful. By remaining loyal to these unique gifts, we can serve as a source of light and inspiration to the whole world.

For this we are eternally grateful, and we declare, Dayenu!

To sell your chametz, please go to www.chabadneworleans.com/chametz.

For general Passover information, including Seder how to and recipes, www.chabadneworleans.com/passover.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Cheer For Our Young Experts

Is there something in which you have expertise? Is there a subject or an intellectual discipline that you have completed? I want to share with you about an expertise being developed by 10 children in our community.

First some background. 40 years ago, the Rebbe launched an initiative encouraging people to engage in daily study of the Halachic works of Maimonides. The advanced track would encompass the Rambam’s 14 volume Mishna Torah – code of Jewish law. The beginners track would encompass the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot – Explanation of the 613 Mitzvot in the Torah. The beginner’s track was encouraged even for school aged children.

Ever since then, tens of thousands of Jewish children around the world have followed the daily study program of Sefer HaMitzvot, which is completed each year. Some years ago, Tzivos Hashem, the organization the Rebbe founded for Jewish children, established a Chidon – competition for children in Sefer HaMitzvot. The book was divided into 5 sections. Children in grades 4-8 were allowed to enter the competition, with one of the five sections assigned to each of the five grades. A child that completes all five years of the competition will have mastered all 613 Mitzvot as taught by the Rambam. Tests are administered and prizes are awarded based on achievement. There is an annual gathering and celebration that includes a Mitzvot game show for the top achievers each year. Eighth graders are given the lagniappe option of being tested on all 613 Mitzvot as a whole, in addition to section 5 that is for their grade.

Our New Orleans Jewish community was well represented this year. 10 Slater Torah Academy students successfully competed in this year’s Chidon and just wrapped up their trip to New York for the celebration. Two elementary school girls and eight boys are well on their way to becoming experts in the 613 Mitzvot. Our community should take pride in their monumental accomplishments. We wish them Mazal Tov. May they serve as an inspiration to the adults in our community to commit ourselves to a greater degree of Torah study, especially the Halachic works of Maimonides. For more information on the daily study go to www.chabadneworleans.com/rambam.

We welcome new team members to Chabad of Louisiana. Rabbi Yisroel and Chaya (nee Rivkin) Slonim have moved to town to join the staff of Chabad Tulane Grads/Alumni and Young Professionals. They will work under the direction of her parents, Rabbi Yochanan and Sarah Rivkin. We wish them much success in all of their endeavors.

Over the next two weeks Chabad of Louisiana will venture to distribute a Shmura Matzah package to every Jewish home in Orleans Parish. If you know of someone that may not be on our list who would appreciate a Matzah package, please let us know. Chabad of Metairie will be distributing packages in Jefferson Parish. We will also be branching out to surrounding parishes, including the Northshore. If you would like to support this project, please go to www.chabadneworleans.com/donate. If you would like to volunteer with delivery, please let us know. Thank you in advance!

We acknowledge the passing of legendary former senator Joe Lieberman. A tribute can be read at www.chabadneworleans.com/6382074.

For this year’s Sale of Chametz form, www.chabadneworleans.com/chametz.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

They Are Not Entitled to Their Own Facts

There is a quote attributed to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” This week I read two op-eds about Purim and the war in Gaza. Each of them, in my opinion, is guilty of the entitlement to their own facts. 

One op-ed expresses a discomfort with the extent of “unjustified” killing at the end of the story resulting in the deaths of 75,800 citizens of the Persian Empire. Esther appeals to the king to avoid calls for a cease-fire, resulting in the killing of the last 300 people in Shushan on the second day of fighting. The author then goes on about how this applies to the war in Gaza.

(I can just imagine the 21st century style media reports of that event. “The Aggagite health ministry reports 75,800 deaths, mostly women and children. This is a disproportionate response, when on the Jewish side not a single death is reported.”) 

The second op-ed expresses a discomfort with the enactment of a jubilant celebration following the killing of said enemies. The author then goes on to invoke one the most oft misappropriated Midrashic teachings, that when the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea, G-d rebuked the angels for singing praise for their destruction saying, “My handiwork is drowning in the sea, and you are singing praise?” This Midrash, says the author, is a Rabbinic criticism of Moses and the people of Israel for rejoicing over their enemies’ destruction. While this op-ed is more nuanced in opining that the Jews of the Persian empire practiced self-restraint, it is still critical of the celebration that followed. The author then goes on to compare it to the war in Gaza.

The comparison of the three instances (Egypt, Persia, Hamas) is apt in that they demonstrate the degree of senseless hatred toward the Jewish people, resulting in fruitless attempts to destroy us.

The Egyptians had just been decimated by the 10 plagues. Yet, they somehow thought it was a good idea to chase the Israelites. What were they thinking? Did they really believe that the G-d Who wrought the plagues upon them would be caught napping at the Red Sea? Yet their hatred for the Israelites overpowered their common sense.

The Persian loyalists to Haman, should have known that they were destined for destruction after seeing what happened to their leader, Haman, and how the king gave the Jews permission to defend themselves. Yet they persisted in taking up arms against the Jews on the day designated by Haman months earlier, because their hatred for the Jews overpowered their common sense.

Hamas knew that they were waking a sleeping giant with the October 7 attack. Yet their hatred for the Jews outweighs their concern for their own people, as is evidenced by their endemic use of civilian shields.

In reality, the Purim story is an excellent lesson on how to deal with those who wish to harm us. The 75,800 casualties were Haman loyalists who were determined to attack the Jews come what may and were killed in an act of self-defense. Had they not been eliminated; they would keep coming back to attack over and over again. Considering that the Persian Empire had 127 provinces, spanning from India to Africa, 75,800 casualties is a small number. It represented only those combatants who took up arms against the Jews. Even those last 300 in Shushan were of that ilk, which is why they needed to be eliminated. Copy and paste to Gaza.

With respect to the Midrashic criticism of singing praise over the destruction of the enemy applying to Moses and the Jewish people, nothing could be further from the truth. The Song of the Sea that the Israelites sang that day, serves as a central part of our daily prayers, and is read in the Torah every year on the anniversary of the event, the seventh of Passover. The Israelites, and for the matter the Jews of Persia, were not celebrating the downfall of their enemies, but rather the elimination of the threat against them through G-d’s salvation. Copy and paste to Gaza.

We hold ourselves to a higher standard, as we should. But that should not be allowed to evolve into “alternative facts” influencing the critical decision making process.

May G-d bless and protect us all and put an end to this threat against our people, thereby eliminating the potential of any further unnecessary civilian deaths. May He Who makes peace on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel, and let us say Amen.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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