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Finding the Women of Valor

We are all familiar with the passage in Proverbs (31) entitled “the woman of valor,” in which King Solomon describes the many praises and virtues of a good woman. Some don’t realize that he begins the passage with a question, “A woman of valor who can find?” While it can be interpreted as rhetorical, another quote of his from Ecclesiastes, 7:28, “One in a thousand I have not found,” leaves some room for the understanding that it may be a real question.

Leaving that debate aside, I would argue that Solomon was simply looking in the wrong room. Had he peeked in on a gathering taking place this weekend in New York, that quote would be revised to “thousands I have found.” I refer to the International Conference of Shluchos, women, who along with their husbands and families, serve as the Rebbe’s emissaries around the world.

Each of these women embodies the term “multi-tasker.” In addition to their role as “akeret habayit – foundation of the home,” caring for large families, they also serve as educators, guidance counselors, administrators of institutions, fundraisers, community leaders and countless other roles. Oh, and by the way, they manage to host scores of people at their homes for Shabbat and holiday meals. They may be involved in Hebrew schools, preschools or day schools. They may be running a Mikvah or directing women’s classes and programming. They may be running a Chabad on campus, serving as a positive force to hundreds of Jewish students. They may be overseeing the construction of a facility that will serve their respective communities. They may be directing a camp or a friendship circle, making a meaningful impact of the lives of Jewish children. They may be a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on for many a despondent or searching soul. They may be expecting a baby or caring for a newborn. They may be long-distance mothering to children who are away at school because their communities do not have Jewish high-schools. Most importantly they are all role models of what a Jewish woman is supposed to be.

This weekend is their chance to energize and network, coming back with recharged batteries and fresh ideas. So while Chabad Rabbis all over the world are manning (or dare I say, womanning?) the house and kids this weekend, a powerful group of women have come together to inspire and be inspired. Each of them will return to their hometown with a drive to transform and elevate their communities. Collectively they will be successful in turning this world into a dwelling place for G-d Al-mighty.

In the meantime the husbands and kids will be just fine… and now I gotta run and find the kids’ proper Shabbos clothes so that they don’t look like their father dressed them this weekend. Over and out!

Have a good Shabbos
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin 

New Year for Trees or People?

Monday is the 15th of Shevat, commonly known as Tu B’Shevat, a day defined by the Talmud as the Rosh Hashanah - New Year for trees. The obvious question is why would trees need a new year? Is there a special new year for animals or fish? Is there a new year for rivers and lakes? What do trees do on their new year anyway? Should they pray and blow the Shofar or cast their sins (what sins?) into the water?

While the Talmud uses the term “New Year for Trees,” the intent is that it is a New Year for Jewish people pertaining to trees. As with every aspect of Torah there are multiple applications – generally divided into two categories, legal - Halachic and moral/spiritual - Avodah.

The Halachic aspect of the Rosh Hashanah is that it determines the “fiscal year” for tithes of fruit growing on trees. According to the Torah, tithes of a particular year must be given from the produce of that same year. The blooming of a tree before or after Shevat 15 will determine to which “fiscal year” that tree’s fruit are assigned.

The Avodah aspect of the Rosh Hashanah is connected to a verse in Deuteronomy referring to the prohibition of cutting down fruit bearing trees. The homiletic application of the verse implies that, “Man is a tree of the field.” In other words, there are aspects of a person’s life that can be compared to a tree. Tu B’Shevat is the time that we must reflect on, and resolve to better those aspects of our life, just as the primary Rosh Hashanah is the time reflect on bettering all aspects of life.

What are some of the comparisons between the life of a tree and that of a person? The quality of a tree is determined by several factors. Is it growing? Does it have deep, strong roots? Does it provide shade or some other aspect of benefit? Does it produce lasting fruit?

As humans, especially as Jews, we must ask ourselves the same questions. Are we growing or are we stagnant? In fact, for humans, stagnancy actually translates into falling or slipping backwards.  

Do we have deep and strong roots that keep us anchored to our heritage – our G-d - through Torah and Mitzvot – in the face of the mighty winds of challenge and adversity?

Do we live our lives in a way that is beneficial to others and to G-d’s plan for the universe, or are we selfishly focused solely on our own needs and wants?

Finally, what lasting impact or influence do we have that will empower others to emulate our positive example?

So while planting trees or raising environmental awareness can be very nice things to do on Tu B’Shevat, we must also remember that this New Year is for us – for humans to see what kind trees they might make based on the lives they are living.

Our condolences to Judy Antin Lachoff and her family upon the passing of her father, Dr. Sidney Antin. I got to know Dr. Antin briefly from my monthly visits to Lambeth House. He always enjoyed seeing the children.

Our condolences to the Glickman family upon the untimely passing of Jimmy Glickman. Jimmy was my neighbor for several years. It was always a pleasure running into him on the street and exchanging greetings. He was also very helpful to us with musical events, even lending us guitars for performances. Stopping in at New Orleans Music Exchange was an uplifting experience. Whether we came by with a Lulav and Etrog on Sukkot or for a music related purpose, Jimmy could not have been nicer. New Orleans will truly miss him.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of...

This has been a week of dreams. The Powerball frenzy has had people expressing their dreams, or at the very least dreaming to themselves, of what they would do with that kind of money, should they win. Dreams that kept people warm and hopeful, if for but a fleeting moment. Some spoke of giving up their jobs. Others talked about acquiring things such as a yacht, a fleet of expensive cars, or an airplane. There was even talk about purchasing a professional sports team. Certainly many people expressed the desire to do good things for others, charitable activities and so forth.

My kids informed me that if we win, first we will pay off the debts of Chabad and Torah Academy and then we will buy a vehicle big enough for the whole family. Hey, at least they have their priorities lined up… first Tzedakah and then something for yourself.

Powerball dreams can tell us a lot about ourselves. They can teach us how generous or selfish we are. They can reveal depth or shallowness within us. The stuff that dreams are made of help us see who we are and can define for us our priorities in life.

All this talk about dreams and hopes for the future had me reflecting on one of the rare occasions when the Rebbe shared something very personal about himself – a dream and hope that started in his childhood.

In a letter dated the 11th of Nissan, 1956, addressed to Israel’s president at the time, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the Rebbe wrote the following:

“From the time I was a child attending cheder, and even before, the vision of the future Redemption began to take form in my imagination—the Redemption of the Jewish people from their final exile, the Redemption of such magnitude through which the purpose of their suffering, the harsh decrees and annihilation of exile will be understood.”

A great person can even be identified by his hopes and dreams. The Rebbe didn’t dream about his own accomplishments but rather the Redemption of the Jewish people. This vision fueled the Rebbe’s every activity and initiative. From the very moment the Rebbe accepted the leadership of the Chabad movement (66 years ago this week), this vision framed his agenda and it was forcefully present in all that he did or said.

As we mark the anniversary of the Rebbe’s ascendance to the leadership of Chabad on the Tenth of Shevat (next Wednesday), let us recommit ourselves to the fulfillment of the Rebbe’s hope and dream of bringing Redemption to the world. We have been given the tools and the instructions of how to use them. We must now move to implementation phase with a sense of urgency to usher the world out of exile and over the threshold of Redemption.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Resisting the Urge to Believe

I recently heard an interview on the radio with an astrophysicist who was talking about developments in his field. Somehow the conversation came around to faith and G-d. The scientist declared that he was an agnostic. He said that he could not accept with certainty that G-d existed and that he tries as much as he can to have alternative explanations for phenomena that religion would associate with the works of a Creator.

He later went on to describe the feeling that he experiences when getting on a mountain with a telescope. When one beholds the vastness of space and the majesty and complexity of the universe one begins to have an emotional reaction of powerful awe. He capped it off by saying that a person of faith would call this a religious experience – a feeling of awe for the Creator of the universe. But since he is not sure it that Creator exists his awe is directed at something that he could not identify.

As I was listening I felt a sense of pity along with some incredulity. Pity that the man, and many others like him, resist the urge to believe. Perhaps it is because acknowledging the existence of G-d comes along with an obligation to follow the instructions of G-d, and they are not looking for that type of structure in their lifestyle. Maybe there are other reasons why they resist.

The incredulity came from the notion that he just described coming face to face with the majesty of G-d’s work yet he still refuses to recognize it for what it is. It is similar to Pharaoh in this week’s Torah portion, who after being slammed over and over again with the plagues continues to insist that he does not acknowledge Hashem.

I wish that this scientist would have the humility and wisdom to stop resisting the urge to believe. Instead of being in conflict with faith, science could be the greatest advocate of belief in Hashem. We recite the words of the Psalms in our prayers, “How numerous are Your works, Hashem!” “How great are Your works, Hashem!” The wonders of creation and the complexity of the universe should be the greatest argument for the existence of a Creator. Embrace what you know in your heart of heart to be true and stop resisting the urge to believe.

A New Orleans native, Rachel Fertel, has been nominated to receive an award for being a young Jewish professional who is making a difference. Please vote for her at www.jewishpeopleschoice.com/Nominees.html. Voting ends early next week.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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