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Talking Points

We are all familiar with the concept of talking points. Especially at this election season we have seen candidates and spokespeople state their talking points and then “lather, rinse and repeat as many times as needed.” Regardless of what questions or challenges are thrown their way, “this is my story and I’m sticking to it” is the approach.

A story is told of a farmer who traveled to a Rebbe in the old country with a list of requests written out by his wife. He was admitted to the Rebbe’s room and on cue, he whipped out his list and started reading. “The cows should give milk, the crops should be good, the poritz (nobleman) should be nice, the children should be healthy, and on and on. The Rebbe was trying to get a word in edgewise to ask him about his davening and learning, but the farmer would have no part of it. He spoke his piece and read his list and then looked up at the Rebbe and checked out.

This week I visited a new section on the prison complex where they house inmates who require some segregation from the “general population.” As soon as I sat down with them, one of them whipped out a list and started reading his complaints and issues with the prison with regards to his religious needs. While I certainly see advocating for the Jewish needs of the inmates as part of my role, I also think that prayer, study and inspiration are integral as well. It felt much like the story of the farmer or the political talking points.

This got me thinking about whether we are all like this sometimes with Hashem. Do we see prayer, whether structured or freestyle, as our opportunity to state our list of requests to the “Big ATM in the Sky?” It is a chance to articulate our needs and wants and that’s it? Or is there more to those moments of communication with the Divine?

Tefilah actually has many dimensions. While requesting is one of those dimensions, it must be accompanied by gratitude to Hashem, praise of Hashem and appreciation for what Hashem has given us. Furthermore Tefilah is a time for self-introspection and bonding with Hashem.

So let’s not get caught up in the talking points while ignoring the other vital aspects of our relationship with Hashem.

The Grand Purim Party committee has voted and this year’s theme is: Purim in Outer Space. Stay tuned for exciting details!!

In the meantime happy Adar and Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Keep a civil tongue in your head

Last Saturday night, after Shabbat ended, I noticed a flurry of activity on social media surrounding the sudden passing of Justice Antonin Scalia. The death of a Supreme Court justice is certainly a newsworthy event. What opened my eyes, however, was the vitriol and hatred that was being directed toward Scalia. He was certainly a polarizing figure, whose opinions evoked strong reactions. It was disappointing that the reactions and differences weren’t intellectual disagreements or even practical disagreements that were not personalized into a hatred and enmity.

Come to think of it, if one turns on talk radio, one finds similar sentiments directed toward anyone of a different political persuasion. Individuals such as a sitting president are proclaimed the enemy of the United States. Political figures are equated with Kim Jong Un and other true despots. When I hear proclamations such as “the true enemy are the Democrats” or “the Republicans are the cause of all ills” I think to myself, “Enemy? The word enemy should reserved for ISIS, Iran, Taliban, Hamas and folks like that”

As a child I always heard that “sticks and stones will break my bones but names can never hurt me.” I don’t think that Torah agrees entirely with that sentiment. While it is smart for a person who is the target of name calling to not be affected by it, the practice in and of itself, is extremely destructive. Words have power and should be used judiciously.

The Rebbe tells the following story about the Baal Shem Tov. A resident of Mezibuz had a quarrel with another. Once, while in the Baal Shem Tov's shul, he shouted that he would tear the other fellow to pieces like a fish. The Baal Shem Tov told his pupils to hold one another's hand, and to stand near him with their eyes closed. Then he placed his holy hands on the shoulders of the two disciples next to him. Suddenly the disciples began shouting in great terror: They had seen that fellow actually dismembering his disputant. This incident shows clearly that every potential has an effect - either in physical form or on a spiritual plane that can be perceived only with higher and more refined senses.

The Torah goes to great lengths to avoid, whenever possible, using negative language. The classic example is in the story of Noah’s flood. When describing the animals that came to the ark, the Torah speaks of pure animals (tehorah) and those that are not tehorah, rather than saying Tameh (impure). So the Torah “wastes” extra words just to avoid using negative language about an animal.

How much more so when we are speaking of a person. How much more so when we are speaking of a person with whom we share a country and a desire for a life of liberty. Differences are there and they should be addressed, even vehemently, but one must always keep a civil tongue and avoid using hyperbolic expressions that can be mistaken as literal by the uninitiated.

While many of our civic leaders have fallen prey to this mindset, we would do well to look at the mutual respect and civility between Justices Ginsburg and Scalia to see how things should be done. It starts with you and me. If we resolve to change our way of speaking, a grass roots movement of civility can grow and change our entire society. And even if it doesn’t, at least our corner of the universe will be a more peasant one.

Chabad’s grand Purim party has gained a reputation as a party not to be missed! This is thanks to the incredible amount of involvement, creativity and fantastic ideas of so many. Let's make this year a Purim to be remembered! Please join us on Sunday, February 21 @ 7:45 PM - Chabad Metairie to plan the Purim party.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

A tribute to my uncle, Rabbi Joshua B. Gordon

I just got back from spending some time in California where my mother and her family are sitting shiva upon the passing of her brother, Rabbi Joshua B. Gordon. Some of you may remember my uncle from his visits to New Orleans and the talks that he gave while he was here. He passed away from an illness at the early age of 66. Rabbi Gordon was a wonderful family man, a son, husband, father, grandfather, sibling and uncle. He was the spiritual leader of Chabad of Encino, Rabbi and teacher to many at the Chabad House he and his wife Deborah founded in 1973, upon being sent by the Rebbe to the San Fernando Valley. He was a great friend and colleague to many. These qualities alone would suffice to sum up an accomplished life. But there are people that take things to the next level. Individuals, who by maximizing the talents and gifts that they were given by G-d, achieve the extraordinary. I would like to briefly share four areas of life in which my uncle Josh achieved the extraordinary.

The first is in the area of family. In every family there are times that call for someone to step up and take a leadership role. In the Gordon extended family that person was Josh. For privacy reasons I will not go into details, but whenever there was a need for advice, assistance, a listening ear, or a decision, he was there as a reliable anchor. He was a person that everyone in the family respected and upon whom one could rely for real guidance and real. Decisions in caring for aged parents, dealing with emergencies and unexpected crises, walking someone through a challenge, were just some of the areas in which he took a leadership role in the family.

The second is community. Rabbi and Mrs. Gordon were sent to establish Chabad in the Valley (outside of Los Angeles). Instead of just servicing the Jews of his immediate environs in Encino, over the course of 43 years, Rabbi Gordon directed a revolution, turning Chabad of the Valley into a powerhouse. Chabad of the Valley now has a network of 26 Chabad centers – each of them teaming with Jewish activity and transforming Jewish life in their respective communities. Each of the Shluchim couples serving those 26 centers attest to the depths of Rabbi Gordon’s involvement and care for each of them and their Chabad Houses. My brother, Rabbi Eliyohu Rivkin, at Chabad of Northridge – one of the 26 centers in the Valley – shared with me this week how supportive and involved Rabbi Gordon was and that he was available to them at all times.

The third is his support for Shluchim. Over the course of his years of experience directing the institutions of Chabad of the Valley, Rabbi Gordon developed some principles that were exceedingly effective in dealing with the many challenges and opportunities that the life of a Chabad Shliach can present. Working in an organization that has multiple personalities requires wisdom in navigating and for effectively neutralizing possible conflicts those personalities can pose. Over the past 20 years Rabbi Gordon became an address to whom hundreds of Shluchim turned for help with conflict resolution or advice and mentoring in any area of Shlichus that may arise. He was a true mentor to his Shluchim brethren.

The fourth is Torah communication. Rabbi Gordon, inspired by the example of my grandfather, Rabbi Sholom Gordon, always saw teaching Torah as his primary role and tool in impacting Jewish life. He used his great communication skills, unique sense of humor and wonderful clarity, in sharing Torah with the Jews of his community, as well as the many communities around the world that had the privilege of hearing him lecture and teach. Some years ago Chabad.org and Rabbi Gordon joined forces to make his daily classes available online for anybody to access. Within a short time Rabbi Gordon Live took off. He taught the entire Torah following the daily Parshah schedule, the entire Tanya (yearly cycle) and the entire Mishna Torah of the Rambam (following the three year cycle). Millions of hours of classes have been accessed via Chabad.org. Tens of thousands of students were following these classes on a regular basis. Chabad.org had just launched an app two weeks ago – Rabbi Gordon App – www.chabadneworleans.com/3213396.

The loss is tremendous. A family bereft of their anchor. A community bereft of its Rabbi and leader. Shluchim bereft of their mentor. Students bereft of their teacher. An ordinary man who maximized his potential and utilized his leadership skills and clarity of purpose to impact so many in extraordinary ways. Rabbi Gordon was truly a high ranking officer in the Rebbe’s army and his efforts have certainly brought closer the Rebbe’s dream of a world of redemption.

May his family, both in the literal and broader sense, be comforted by Hashem among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem and may we very soon merit the final redemption when we will once again be reunited with our loved ones who have passed on. Amen.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

Going Postal... In a good way

Which is a more compelling motivator for getting something done, logic or obedience? The common answer would be logic. For if one intellectually appreciates the reason for a particular task, there would most likely be more passion and therefore a greater motivation for accomplishing the said task.

We find two types of Mitzvot in the Torah, loosely categorized as – Mishpatim/Eidot and Chukim. Mishpatim are Mitzvot for which logical explanations are provided (to some degree or another). Examples would be civil laws such as the prohibition against murder and theft, as well as most rituals such Shabbat, Passover, Mezuzah etc. Chukim are the Mitzvot for which no real logical explanation has been provided. Examples would be the laws of Kosher, ritual purity, forbidden mixtures etc.

When it comes to Mishpatim the primary motivator seems to be the logic, which leads to a passionate fulfillment of the Mitzvah. When it comes to Chukim the primary motivator seems to be obedience – this is what Hashem commanded us to do, period.

Conventional wisdom would support the following assertion. One should seek to incorporate the same passion that one has for Mishpatim, when fulfilling the Chukim. This way the Mitzvot are not merely performed with a dry sense of duty, but with great feeling.

Chassidus comes along and argues. One should seek to fulfill the Mishpatim with the same degree of obedience (Kabbalat Ol) that one has when fulfilling the Chukim.

Why does Chassidus assign supremacy to obedience over logic? Because with logic the reliance is on the human capacity to translate the logic into passion and the passion into action. What about the times when “you’re just not feeling like it?” Or what if the Yetzer Hara is making powerful counter arguments to confuse the logic and cool off the passion? The Mitzvah is left unfulfilled. When, on the other hand, obedience is the motivator, all of the obstacles in the world cannot prevent the person from fulfilling Hashem’s Mitzvah.

To borrow the postal workers’ creed – “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” A person with Kabbalat Ol is not obstructed by feelings of apathy (snow), difficulties (rain), worldly desires (heat), or melancholy (gloom of night). Kabbalat Ol – obedience keeps a person laser focused on achieving the task at hand – fulfilling the will of Hashem.

Once the foundation of obedience is in place, then it is imperative to build upon that foundation, a beautiful structure of intellectual appreciation and passion for Torah and Mitzvot.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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