ChabadNewOrleans Blog

Echoes of a Shofar Blast from Auschwitz

It was Rosh Hashanah 1944. The Nazis were making short shrift of Hungarian Jewry less than a year before the end of the war. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Meisels, a prominent Hungarian Rabbi, managed to smuggle a Shofar into Auschwitz. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah he went around the camp sounding the shofar at the various barracks. In his memoirs, Mekadshei Hashem, he recalls the great emotions of the people hearing the sound of the shofar.

There was a group of over a thousand youths that had been assigned to the block – the unit where people were sent before being gassed and tossed into the crematorium. They heard that there was a Shofar in Auschwitz and they begged the Rabbi to come sound the Shofar for them so they could at least perform the Mitzvah before the die.

After painful deliberation about his own safety and the future of his own son, he acquiesced. Before sounding the Shofar they begged him to say a few words. He cited the verse in Psalms that alludes to the shofar being sounded when the moon is concealed (Rosh Hashanah is the first day of the lunar cycle). “This,” he exclaimed, “is a reference to the time when the Jewish people, who are compared to the moon, are in a difficult state. Even then we blow the shofar, declaring our faith in G-d. Boys, the Talmud says that even when a sword is hanging over us we do not stop praying to G-d for salvation.” After hearing the shofar blasts, the youths cried out in unison, “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad.”

Fast forward 72 years. We are approaching Rosh Hashanah 2016. Almost all Jews now live in circumstances where they are free to practice as Jews unhindered by the government or society around them. Yet, while those boys at the mouth of the gas chambers begged to hear the shofar, sadly we have thousands of Jews today who couldn’t be bothered to go hear the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah.

This year, let us pay attention to the haunting echo of those Shofar blasts in Auschwitz, and make sure that we take advantage of our freedom to hear the Shofar without any risk of harm. And if you are already committed to hearing the Shofar this year, find someone that may not be and encourage them, or better yet, facilitate their participation in hearing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah.

If you are looking for a place, Chabad welcomes you. We do not have tickets or membership requirements. All prayerbooks come with English translations and a meaningful commentary accompanies all of the High Holiday services. We look forward to spending the holiday with you!

Wishing you a good and sweet year with Hashem’s blessings for health, prosperity, happiness and spiritual growth.

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Glorifying G-d's Name

When I was a child, whenever we were going somewhere as a family, or as a group with school or camp, we were instructed to make sure that our conduct causes a Kiddush Hashem and not a Chilul Hashem. These terms literally mean “glorification” or “desecration” of G-d’s name. If we acted nicely, supposedly this would be a glorification of Hashem, and the opposite type of behavior would be a desecration of Hashem. As children we sometimes wondered aloud to each other whether this was hyperbolic (we probably didn’t use that term); a tactic to get us to behave. We further mused that it might be more appropriate to call it a Kiddush or Chilul of ourselves (family, group etc.).

However, a careful reading of this week’s Parsha with a little dose of layered meaning, reveals that they were likely spot on when they associated how we were perceived, to the glorification of Hashem.

The verse (Deuteronomy, 26:17-18) states, “For your G-d you have glorified today… and your G-d has glorified you.” The sages comment that Hashem is saying that He is glorified through the Jewish people. This sentiment is echoed in Isaiah (49:3) “You are My servant Israel, in whom I am glorified.” So there are two ways to understand this. One is, that when Israel praises G-d, He is glorified by them. The second is, that the very existence and conduct of the people of Israel is a glorification of G-d. This second approach is reflected in the following phenomenon.

Tefillin are referred to in the book of Ezekiel (24:17) as “your glory that is bound upon you.” The Talmud discusses the idea that G-d “wears” Tefillin just as He instructs us to do. Our Tefillin contain the Shema, praising Hashem. Hashem’s Tefillin contain the verse (II Samuel 7:23) “And who is like Your people, like Israel, one nation in the world.” So it turns out that Hashem’s Tefillin, which are supposed to reflect the glory of the wearer, contain the praises of Israel. The Talmud asks, “Is G-d glorified through the glory of the people of Israel?” To which they reply, “Indeed it is so” and they quote the verse of this week’s Parsha, “For your G-d you have glorified today.” This proves that Hashem’s glorification comes not only through praises of Him declared by Israel, but also through the glory of the Jewish people themselves.

So I guess “they” were justified in telling us that our actions can cause a Kiddush or Chilul Hashem. This is indeed a great privilege but also a great responsibility. A Jewish person has the potential to be “the servant of Hashem in whom He is glorified” or G-d forbid the opposite, when our actions can have negative repercussions. Let’s make sure that we justify Hashem’s pride in us!

Speaking of Tefillin, this Sunday at 11 Am is the Mega Tefillin Wrap at Audubon Tea Room. All Jewish men are asked to come together and share the Mitzvah of Tefillin in unity. If you already lay Tefillin every day, then bring your set to help someone else. If you are not a Tefillin regular come lay Tefillin with your brothers on Sunday.

I share with you another testament. Here is Dr. Gerard Chiche’s Tefillin story.

“I was 43 year-old when Rabbi Zelig Rivkin taught me the Mitzvah of Tefillin. I am forever thankful for his teachings and I have never questioned further whether I should wear them every day or not, no matter how busy I am. It really makes you come in contact with your essence as a Jew, and I may have missed wearing them no more than a few days in 20 years. Wearing Tefillin makes my prayers to G-d more powerful and meaningful as I feel I can connect more intensely to the Divine when I Daven. Learning further about Tefillin was a very important part of my journey as a Jew and this adds more significance as one finds that it brings protection for the day, and it is such an important Mitzvah that I feel comfort knowing that the Infinite light of the Divine Ein Sof is in the room with me when I pray. These feelings become part of you and you come to appreciate them more over time if you travel as frequently across the country as I do. Wearing Tefillin at the start of the day in a hotel room in unfamiliar surroundings gets me off to a confident start that G-d will insure that everything will work out fine for the rest of the day.”

Hope to see y’all on Sunday!

Big Mazel Tov to Chabad of Mobile upon the grand opening of Olender Chabad House last night. May they have much success in their sacred work!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


Mega Tefillin Wrap

We are coming to the end of the Hakhel year (of gathering). All year long, Chabad centers around the world have held unity events for the express purpose of bringing people together. There have been Mega Challah Bakes and similar programs. Here in New Orleans, Chabad of Louisiana is approaching this with an innovative twist – A Mega Tefillin Wrap.

The goal is to get as many Jewish men as possible together for the purpose of laying Tefillin. In 1967 the Rebbe launched the Tefillin campaign, calling on Jewish men to rededicate themselves to this tradition. It is not uncommon to be stopped on the streets of New York, Miami, Melbourne or Tel Aviv and asked to lay Tefillin. Chabad of Louisiana is combining these two campaigns into one event – the Mega Tefillin Wrap – bringing Jewish men together in unity to wrap Tefillin. We are calling on all Jewish men, those who already wrap Tefillin each day to come with their Tefillin, along with those that do not, to come together and help each other.

The Mega Tefillin Wrap event is scheduled for Sunday, September 25 11:00 am – 12:30 pm at Audubon Tea Room, 6500 Magazine St. There will be music and refreshments. This is a joint campaign of all five Chabad branches in our region, Chabad Uptown, Metairie, Tulane, Baton Rouge and Biloxi.

I reached out to a friend, who committed to laying Tefillin each day, and asked him to share his Tefillin story to inspire others. Here is Stewart Homler’s Tefillin story.

“About 2 years ago, I decided to regularly lay Tefillin.  At that time I was 52 and I recall that I had only worn Tefillin on 4 prior occasions.  The 1st time surrounded my bar-mitzvah and the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th times surrounded each of my 3 son’s bar-mitzvahs.  In the past, I had never given much thought as to why one would take time out of his busy morning to wear Tefillin or what one could possibly derive from this daily experience.

It all started for me several years ago while visiting my parent’s home in NY and being drawn to a portrait of my great-great-grand uncle shown wearing his arm and head Tefillin.  I often found myself staring at this painting and trying to interpret this elderly man’s facial expression and the calmness that seemed to embrace him.  I was intrigued. 

Shortly after this visit, while attending a Judaism class in downtown New Orleans, I was given the opportunity to once again lay Tefillin.  Though I needed some assistance wrapping my arm and positioning the head Tefillin, as I read through the Shema I felt a personal connection with Hashem that I never experienced before.  It was a sensation that Hashem was standing by my side and a further feeling that I was given a gift, Tefillin. 

With the assistance of Rabbi Mendel, I purchased my own Tefillin, practiced wearing it, and learned the appropriate readings.  I always recite all readings in Hebrew and English to make sure all is clear in my mind.  Whenever I travel for work or pleasure, I always pack my Tefillin!

Perhaps what I now feel is a taste of what my great-great-grand uncle had expressed in his portrait.  I believe it is and now two years later I continue to look forward to each morning when I rise and lay Tefillin.  No matter what each day might introduce (and sometimes days are crazy), I know that I begin with a healthier heart, mind, and more positive approach as I walk out my front door.  I am thankful for this life lasting gift.”

Join us on the 25th for the Mega Tefillin Wrap. Please let us know that you will be participating.

While I usually avoid using this forum to directly address personal matters, I will make an exception and take this opportunity to wish my wife, Malkie, a happy 20th anniversary. I look forward to sharing many more wonderful years together.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

And like a good neighbor...

Our sages relate that the word Elul can be seen as an acrostic within many Torah passages. Perhaps the most famous is Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li (I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me). Some lesser known Elul acronyms are cited in the 17th century mystical work, Megaleh Amukot. One of them is Oy L’rasha V’oy L’shcheino – woe is to the wicked and woe is to his neighbor.

Now at first glance this is a most depressing idea to associate with the month of mercy and forgiveness. Yet Chassidus comes along and turns our perspective around entirely making it a message of hope.

To appreciate this we must first introduce another Kabbalsistic idea. The Zohar suggests that the 12 months of the Hebrew calendar can be divided among the founding fathers of our people. Various divisions are presented. Abraham and Isaac get their months. Jacob is assigned the months of Nissan, Iyar and Sivan, leaving three months for Esau, Tammuz, Av and Elul. However, the Zohar argues, Moses ensured by being on Mount Sinai during this month, that Elul would not belong to Esau. Rather, Elul would be a time for forgiveness. This leaves Esau with Tammuz and Av – the months in which great tragedies befell the Jewish people.

Now who requires forgiveness? One who has sinned, a - rasha – wicked person. How does one achieve forgiveness? By repenting and regretting the wicked deeds. In this light, the phrase “Oy L’rasha – woe is to the wicked,” is not a statement of fact, but rather the voice of the rasha expressing regret over his sins. So now Oy L’rasha is very much the theme of Elul – Teshuvah.

Who is Elul’s neighbor? The month of Av, heretofore belonging to Esau. Comes along the phrase “woe is to the wicked and woe is to his neighbor” and teaches that not only is Elul a month when the rasha regrets his sins and is forgiven, but even his neighbor, Av, can be transformed as well. This is why many of the Elul practices begin in the second half of Av. So Esau gets to keep only the first 9 days of Av. After that Elul rests the remaining days of Av out of Esau’s control.

May we make full use of the month of Elul to reach higher and closer to Hashem in Teshuvah. In turn Hashem will inscribe and seal us for a happy, healthy, prosperous and meaningful new year!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

The Next 40 Days are Criticial

The next forty days are absolutely critical for each and every one of us. “What are you talking about?” I hear you asking. Many are familiar with the connection between the verse Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li and the upcoming month of Elul. Indeed, the first letters of those very four words spell Elul. If you pay close attention you will also notice that the last letter of each word is identical – a yud. The numerical value of yud is ten. Multiply by four and you get forty. What is the significance of forty? The days from the beginning of Elul until Yom Kippur. These forty days are called days of Divine Will and Mercy.

The verse Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li (I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me) ends with the words, “Ha’roeh Bashoshanim – who feeds among the roses.” What do roses have to do with Divine Mercy and the forty special days? Our sages explain, just a rose has 13 petals, so too there are the 13 Divine Attributes of Mercy. So my Beloved (Hashem) feeding among the roses is an allusion to the Revelation of the Divine Attributes of Mercy numbering 13.

It was during these forty days that G-d forgave the Jewish nation for the sin of the golden calf and gave Moses the second set of Tablets, declaring on day forty “I have forgiven them as you have spoken.” This experience repeats itself every year at this same time – the forty days of Divine Will and Mercy.

During the next 40 days we have the opportunity to access and take advantage of these Divine Mercies by opening ourselves up to their influence. How is this achieved? Through Teshuvah. What is Teshuvah? Not just repentance for sins and misdeeds, but also restoring our souls to their original closeness to Hashem. This is why we sound the shofar, increase Tzedakah, recite extra Tehillim, and all around self-betterment during this period.

The forty days begin on this Shabbat. Let’s get a head start on this process and make it the most successful forty days of our lives!

May you be inscribed and sealed for a happy, healthy, prosperous and meaningful new year!
Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


Looking for older posts? See the sidebar for the Archive.