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The Multiple Images of Elul

Picture the declaration, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” – This is Elul – the month of freedom from sin. An auspicious time for spiritual renewal.

Picture a man being chased by another with blood in his eyes. He runs toward a secure place – a haven - arriving just moments before his assailant. His is now safe from harm. – This is Elul - a month refuge from the Yetzer Hara.

Picture a gentleman determinedly courting a young woman with the prospect of matrimony in close sight. He finally gathers up the courage to propose marriage to her and he eagerly awaits her response. – This is Elul – under the sign of the maiden, it is the month when G-d courts and proposes to the Jewish people that they once again be His treasured nation.

Picture a candidate for the top office in the land stomping on the campaign trail trying to prove to his constituents that he truly cares for them and will work hard to improve their lives and their society. - This is Elul – the month where G-d is auditioning for another year as Sovereign of the Universe.

Picture a benevolent monarch returning to his capital from a long journey. As he approaches the city his subjects come out to welcome him back. He greets each of them, even the simple farmers and laborers in their work clothes, with a smile and joyous countenance. – This is Elul – the month when Hashem is accessible to us and happily accepts our Teshuva and love for Him.

Picture a sleeping soldier awakened by reveille. A sleeping school-child awakened by the alarm clock. A sleeping farmer awakened by a rooster’s call. A fireman roused to duty by the clanging fire alarm. – This is Elul – the month in which the Shofar is sounded as a wake-up call to engage in spiritual betterment and closeness to Hashem.

These Elul images are all employed by our sages to bring us heightened awareness as to the special qualities of this month. These metaphors should inspire us to truly seize the opportunity to utilize every day and moment of Elul in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and the new year. Sometimes we need a happy image. Sometimes we need a hopeful image. Sometimes we need an image that inspires confidence or one that makes us feel secure and loved. Sometimes we just need a reminder to be all that we can be.

May we make the most of all of our Elul images and opportunities. Doing so will ensure that Hashem blesses each and every one of us and our loved ones with a happy, healthy, prosperous and meaningful new year of 5775, dripping with sweetness and charged with the energy of redemption!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Living Legacy - Bringing Jewish Rituals to Life

One of the greatest challenges that Jewish educators face is making the lessons and practices of Judaism interesting and relevant. Children, and for that matter adults, are no longer satisfied with the “tell me what to do and I will do it” approach to teaching. It needs to be fun, interactive and fascinating. The Living Legacy Series was created to meet this challenge. Born years ago as a cluster of independent craft workshops such as the Model Matzah Bakery and Shofar Factory, they have since been organized into a comprehensive series that brings the holidays and rituals of Judaism to life. The Living Legacy Series is an opportunity for children to have fun doing a craft project while learning the most “boring” details about the mitzvah or holiday.  A child (or adult) who bakes his or her own Matzah, for example, and goes through the steps of the process, will view the Matzah and the Seder in a new light. The holiday comes alive for them and is much more meaningful. 

One of the first projects I got involved with at Chabad of Louisiana was bringing the Shofar Factory to our community. The look on the children’s faces as they experience the Shofar Factory, is the best proof of the worthiness of the program. The exclamations of “cool,” “awesome” and “wow this is neat” make it worth the work that goes into the project. We have since added four additional workshops, the Olive Press, Torah Factory, Model Matzah Bakery and Mezuzah Factory. We have also offered these workshops to adult groups and they have been as enthusiastic as the children. The latter two workshops were made possible through the Jewish Federation’s Strategic Grant Initiative. Three years ago the Goldring Family Foundation began to underwrite Chabad of Louisiana’s Living Legacy Series. We are grateful to Mr. Alan Franco for his efforts on our behalf. This generous support allows us to offer the workshops to schools, and youth and adults groups at a very reasonable rate.

Through the Living Legacy Series we have been able to reach out to schools and groups all across the region from Lafayette to Biloxi and everywhere in between. We have visited every single Jewish school and Synagogue in the area. We look forward to a busy Shofar Factory season beginning next weekend, including a workshop for Young Jewish Professionals on September 11.

Project Talmud Summer 2014 was held last Monday night. Over 40 participants enjoyed the lecture and the classes. See photos below or at www.chabadneworleans.com/2457415.

Chabad of Louisiana has recently signed up for the Amazon Smile program. You can now shop on Amazon and a percentage of your purchase will be donated to Chabad Lubavitch of Louisiana. Go to www.smile.amazon.com/ch/72-0791958 and select Chabad Lubavitch of Louisiana as your charity. For your purchase to be eligible, you must begin at www.smile.amazon.com.

This coming Sunday we will gather Anshe Sfard Synagogue to remember a good friend, Dr. Stuart Haas. Service begins at 4:30. Following the memorial, refreshments will be served. Please let us know if you will be in attendance.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Avoiding Dehydration in a Spiritual Desert

In this week’s Parsha the Torah describes the Sinai desert as follows: “that great and awesome desert, [in which were] snakes, vipers and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water.” The Chassidic masters teach that this verse is symbolic of the slippery slope that a person can experience getting lost in the spiritual desert of society. The desert is termed elsewhere “the desert of the nations” since many nations lived in and around it. Conceptually the “desert of the nations” represents the “gentile society” that presents a threat to a Jew’s closeness to Hashem and heightened spirituality.

It begins with a Jew regarding the desert as great – the allure of the outside world seems greater than what Judaism has to offer. From great it grows to awesome – not only something great, but also something that should be feared, something powerful and overwhelming. Once a person is lost in the desert of society, snakes and vipers comes along to challenge the Jew even more. The snake venom represents a heated passion for material and physical indulgence. This results in a cooling of the previous passion for G-d and Judaism. The venom of the viper is even more dangerous than that of the snake. This represents the “burning out” of any remaining enthusiasm for Torah and Hashem. Finally the scorpion comes along. As cold-blooded creatures, their sting represents the coldness and apathy to anything holy and G-dly.

After experiencing all these steps the Jew reaches a point where there is no longer any water – the metaphor for Torah. Even when there is a thirst – a stirring in the soul for G-d, there is no water with which to slake this thirst. What is the solution? Two things. First of all, a Jew must remember that Hashem elevated us at Sinai to a status that far outweighs the false allure the “desert of the nations.” We have a job to do and that requires us to be focused on our uniqueness and our important contribution to spiritual development of the world and all of its inhabitants. Secondly, we need to ensure that there is so much water (Torah) that no desert can prevent us from remaining faithful to who we are. We need to immerse ourselves in Torah study so that we never allow ourselves to become spiritually dehydrated. At least eight glasses a day…

To that end I want to encourage you all to take advantage of a great opportunity next Monday night. Project Talmud Summer 2014 features three great teachers and three interesting topics. To top it off it is free thanks to a generous grant from GCP, Inc. Dinner will be served at 6:30 and the teaching begins at 7. I hope you will make the most of this chance to hydrate your soul.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

To be or to be not? That is the question!

In last week’s blogpost (see below) the idea of spiritual House to House Combat was introduced with a call for Mezuzahs to be placed on the doors of Jewish homes and offices all over town. I would like to give a report on how this program has taken off. Just in the last 12 days Mezuzahs have been placed on two new homes, a new medical office, an apartment, housing a visiting family from Israel near Ochsner, the apartment of a recent newcomer to NOLA and plans have been made for more next week. Let’s keep it rolling New Orleans. It is just one small way that we can help protect our people in Israel.

The Jewish Art Calendar has been submitted for print and will be mailed out at the end of August. If you did not receive a calendar last year or you have moved since last September, please give us your address so we can ensure that you receive your copy for the year 5775.

In this week’s Torah portion the phrase “Ein Od Milvado” appears, and it is repeated in a slightly shortened form “Ein Od.” This literally means “there is none aside from Him.” The phrase is generally understood to be a rejection of idolatry, i.e. there are no other deities aside from Hashem. However, a deeper understanding of the phrase indicates that it is not just declaring there to be no other deities, but rather that there is nothing else at all. In other words nothing exists besides G-d. Philosophy students like to box this into a concept they refer to as “acosmism” – a denial of the reality of the universe.

The trouble is that it is hard to stand in the world and declare it to be non-existent. Doesn’t it hurt it I pinch myself? Furthermore, the Torah of truth, attests to the reality of the world in the very first verse, “In the beginning G-d created the heaven and the earth.” So we have to find a way for the world to exist and not exist at the same time, or for all that exists to be a part of the Divine reality. The philosophers struggle with this concept and they try to frame it by using terms like “panentheism” and “acosmic monism.”

Chassidic doctrine inspired by Lurianic Kabbala deals with this issue at length. More importantly, in typical fashion, it takes this concept out of the realm of academic and finds very practical day to day application of the resolution to this challenge.

If you are wondering why I am sharing this with you… It is because we are about to launch a class studying one of the Chassidic works that deals with this issue. It has been translated into English and is entitled True Existence, a Chassidic essay by the fourth Chabad Rebbe. This class will meet each Wednesday evening at 8 PM at Chabad Uptown. If you would like more information or to join the class, email me at mendel@chabadneworleans.com.

While you are wondering whether to be or to be not, have a Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

House to House Combat

A fly falls into a cup of coffee. Italian: Gets mad, spills the coffee and walks away. French: Takes the fly out and drinks the coffee. Chinese: Spills out the coffee and eats the fly. Russian: Drinks the coffee in silence. Israeli: Sells the coffee to the French, sells the fly to the Chinese, buys himself a new cup of coffee and spends the rest of the money to develop a device that would prevent flies from falling into the coffee. Palestinian: Blames the Israeli for putting the fly into his coffee, complains to the UN, gets a financial aid from the EU to buy another cup of coffee, instead uses the money to buy TNT and blows up the coffee shop where the Italian, French, Chinese and Russian are trying to convince the Israeli to give up his cup of coffee for the Palestinian...

The war in Gaza rages on. Our brothers and sisters are being wounded, kidnapped and killed. The world around us has gone off the deep end. The UN is condemning Israel for not sharing Iron Dome technology with Hamas. Ceasefire is defined as Israel ceases and Hamas fires.

Every one of us want to do more to help and support. I encourage you to continue following the situation and learn what you can do to help at www.chabadneworleans.com/2639944 and www.ctvp.org.

I would also like to highlight two suggestions. We are currently in the nine day period of intense mourning for the destruction of both Holy Temples on the 9th of Av. Our sages teach that the Temple was destroyed as a result of baseless hatred and disunity among the Jewish people. To undo the result we must remove the cause. At all times, but especially in this time of year, and especially during these trying times for the Jewish people, we must significantly increase in the area of Ahavat Yisrael – unconditional love for each other - and Achdut Yisrael – unity. We are seeing high levels of unity and an outpouring of Ahavat Yisrael in reaction to the situation in Israel right now. We need to take it up a notch and sustain it until we bring about the Redemption and the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash.

The second suggestion is based on a thought shared by Rabbi Gluckowsky of Rechovot, Israel. The Rebbe taught us that a Mitzvah has the power to have an impact on something even across the ocean. As IDF soldiers are in Gaza going house to house to seek tunnels, weapons and militants, we need to start a house to house campaign of our own. On the door of every Jewish home there should be a Mezuzah attesting to the presence of Hashem in that home. The Mezuzah also symbolizes the verse in Psalms, “Hashem is your protector, Hashem is your protective shade on your right hand. Hashem guards your going and coming from now and forever.”

Let us launch a house to house campaign to ensure that Jews in our community have kosher Mezuzahs. If you have a Mezuzah, have it checked to make sure it is kosher and properly installed. If you do not have one or your Jewish neighbor does not have one, get one and affix it to the door. We at Chabad are happy to help out. Contact us for a Mezuzah checkup or to get Mezuzahs for your homes. Our people are standing by to do what they can. If you would like to contribute to a fund that helps acquire Mezuzahs for those that cannot afford them, go to www.chabadneworleans.com/donate and indicate that it is for the Mezuzah campaign.

In the merit of these Mitzvahs may Hashem bring peace and salvation to Israel and the entire world with the coming of Moshiach speedily. May these days of mourning and sadness be transformed to days of feasting and celebration with the complete and final redemption, Amen!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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