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Make America Sane Again

In the early generations of the Chasidic movement, the opposition was very fierce. Sadly, much of the opposition was a result of insidious individuals fanning of the flames of divisiveness. It had reached such a frenzied state, that many were unwilling to even take an honest look for themselves to see whether the accusations were rooted in truth or falsehood.

The first scholarly work that Rabbi Schneur Zalman (the first Chabad Rebbe) published was an excerpt of his Code of Jewish Law, the Laws of Torah Study. It was published anonymously by his request. The story is related, that when the book was brought to Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna, who was the Rabbinic leader of the opposition, he was thoroughly impressed and highly praised the scholarship. Once he found out who the author was, he changed his tune and refused to reconsider his opposition. This story indicates to us the climate of inflexibility that reigned in the Jewish world at the time. Change came about when certain individuals were willing to get “out of the box,” as well as by the necessity of working together against common adversaries.

I cite this only as a point of reference; as a means of learning from history. My intent is not to draw a comparison between individuals or ideologies. We live in a time where the climate in our society is so partisan, that one can rarely find an example of willingness to even hear the ideas of “the other side,” let alone actually work together for common good. Our political atmosphere is so poisonous, that one would not even consider an idea put forth by the other, simply because of the name or party associated with it. As social media has given everyone a platform, all we do is shrilly shout into the echo chamber, not stopping for long enough to even contemplate the possibility that there may be some valid points being made by the other.

I wish to share something I wrote in 2016 after the Orlando shooting. “Let’s take a page from the Talmud in how to deal with divergence of opinions on important issues. The Talmud is filled with Halachic disputes between sages. Perhaps the most famous disputants are Beit Hillel (school of Hillel) and Beit Shammai (school of Shammai). They argue about hundreds of cases. In the vast majority of cases the Halacha follows the opinion of Beit Hillel, as the majority of sages supported their opinion in those cases. In explaining this phenomenon, the Talmud declares that the reason why Halacha so often followed the opinion of Beit Hillel is because they were humble and they cite the view of Beit Shammai before citing their own view.

The question is, humility is very nice and being polite is also very nice, but what does that have to do with verifying truth and determining Halacha? One of the commentaries explains it in this manner. When Beit Hillel cite Beit Shammai’s opinion first it is because they truly wished to hear the opposing view and seriously consider it before offering their own. When one is seeking the truth one is truly open to hearing what the other person has to say and will seriously consider that opinion before either accepting or rejecting it.

Contrast this approach with what we have in our society today. We have sides that are entrenched, each so stuck with their agenda that they don’t pause for a moment to consider the possibility that the other side may have a legitimate contribution to the discussion. These agendas color the ability to seek truth wherever it may be found, as the saying goes, “don’t confuse me with the facts.” Or, I may add, “don’t confuse me with logical arguments.” It may actually be, that in our situation there is legitimacy to many of the arguments and the answer lies somewhere as a blend of the solutions. But if we don’t stop shouting for long enough to consider the view of another, we may never resolve these issues and more and more people will be victims of our inability and unwillingness to cooperate.”

Let us introduce sanity into the public discourse of 2018 by listening before dismissing an idea just because of by whom it is presented. Our society and our lives will be enriched as a result.

We welcome Rachel Sadres to New Orleans and to our Chabad Uptown community. Wishing you much success in all of your endeavors; may the new location bring mazel in all that you do.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

Chanukah 2017 Recap

We are coming off of the high of a wonderful Chanukah holiday and I would like to share with you, our partners in the work of Chabad – directly or indirectly – a recap of Chanukah 2017 with Chabad of Louisiana.

Olive Press Sinai 1.jpgChabad’s Living Legacy Series presented the Olive Press Craft Workshop at Northshore Jewish Congregation, Temple Sinai, Woldenberg Village and Gates of Prayer. All in all over 100 children and adults enjoyed and were enriched by the presentations. The Living Legacy Series is underwritten by a grant from the Goldring and Woldenberg Foundations. We thank Alan Franco for facilitating this grant, enabling us to enhance the holiday for so many in our community.

Taste of Chanukah Whole Foods 2.jpgOn the Sunday before Chanukah, Chabad Uptown partnered with Whole Foods Market Arabella Station for a Taste of Chanukah. For 3 hours, hundreds of latkes were made and served in the breezeway along with Chanukah materials and literature. The smell of latkes frying was drawing people from all around the store and the parking lot. Over at the Veterans location it was the children who were making Latkes along with Rabbi Zalman and Libby Groner of Chabad Metairie.

Chanukah_5778-62.jpgThe first night of Chanukah heralded the lighting of the Menorah overlooking the Mississippi. Chanukah @ Riverwalk was held at the Riverwalk food-court and terrace due to construction at the Spanish Plaza. 400 attendees enjoyed a latke bar, children’s activities and face painting, a performance by George the juggler, music by Ooh Lala and an assortment of specialty Chanukah items including our signature Chanukah beads created by Mardi Gras Zone and the Naghi family. The lighting ceremony was addressed by MC Jill Halpern, Councilman Elect Joe Giarrusso, Laura Gurievsky (Riverwalk), Henry Miller (Federation), Morris Bart, Arnie Fielkow and Rabbi Zelig Rivkin. The Menorah was lit by Richard Cahn and the blessings were sung by Yehudah Lang. This year’s event was dedicated in memory of Dr. David Kaufmann, founding coordinator of Chanukah @ Riverwalk.

That same night, Chabad Tulane lit the Menorah at the LBC quad allowing students a quick break from studying for exams to warm themselves in the light of the Menorah.

Chanukah VA.jpgDuring the second day of Chanukah a Menorah lighting ceremony was held with Rabbi Mendel Ceitlin in the VA facility. On the third eve of Chanukah a Menorah lighting celebration was held at Lambeth House. Later that evening Chanukah on the Coast was Chanukah Coast.jpgheld at Edgewater Mall in Biloxi with Rabbi Akiva and Hannah Hall, attended by 75 including the Mayor of Biloxi, Andrew “FoFo” Gilich.

On the fourth night of Chanukah, Shabbat, Mobile Menorah Parade 1.jpgChabad Metairie held their Shabbat Chanukah Family Dinner. Saturday Night, the fifth night of Chanukah, heralded the Mobile Menorah Parade. The Krewe of Chanukah paraded through downtown, the French Quarter, the Marigny and back uptown, followed by a party hosted by the Kehaty and Schreiber families.

Chanukah BR.jpgChanukah @ the Capitol in Baton Rouge was held on the sixth night with Rabbi Peretz and Mushka Kazen, attended by 100 and included a gelt drop courtesy of the Baton Rouge Fire Dept.

On the seventh night of Chanukah the women of the Rosh Chodesh Society met for a Chanukah celebration at Chabad Metairie.

This is in addition to the many private and communal celebrations of Chanukah throughout our region. This “minor holiday” has really come a long way.

On the last day of Chanukah, as the sun was setting on the east coast, the wonderful news about the release of Sholom Rubashkin was heard, and he returned home that night. Whatever one knows or thinks about the case and its details, there is no arguing that his harsh 27 year sentence was completely over the top. The news was greeted by spontaneous joy and celebration around the world, as thousands took to the streets and synagogues to rejoice. It is heartwarming to see how much caring there is from one Jew to another. This type of unity and brotherhood will surely carry us over the threshold that separates exile from redemption, may it take place very soon.

Shabbat Shalom 
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

It's All Greek To Me

We are in the midst of a wonderful Chanukah holiday with celebrations galore. (See photos below of Chanukah @ Riverwalk – credit Gil Rubman.)

I would like to take a moment amid the celebrating to reflect on a puzzling element of the Chanukah story. The Hellenists (protagonists of Greek culture) sought to influence the Jewish people to assimilate to their way of life. For over 100 years they were successful to some degree, and many Jews in Israel began to adopt Greek ways. If Hellenist culture was so attractive to the Jews because of its intellectual draw, why were the Maccabees so resistant? One would think that a mind-centered culture such as Judaism would embrace the Hellenist way as a compliment to its own. And if the Hellenists were so cultured and intellectual why did they resort to using force in the face of that resistance? One would think that an enlightened culture such as Hellenism would rely entirely on persuasion as a means of influence rather than to employ force.

To answer these questions in a nutshell, let me point out the spelling of the word Greek in Hebrew, which is Yavan. Yavan has three Hebrew letters, Yud, Vav, Final Nun. This sequence is unique in that all three letters are identical in form except that they get successively longer. The yud is a half line, the vav is a whole line, and the final nun is a line and a half. In Kabbala, Yud represents wisdom. As the leg gets longer to form a vav, that represents the influence of wisdom on life. As the leg gets longer to form a final nun, that represents wisdom being corrupted and dragged down into the nether regions of life.

In Judaism, wisdom is intended to be a spring board to reach for higher – that which is beyond rationale. The core of the soul is beyond wisdom and enables the person to connect to the essence of G-d, Who is beyond intellectual grasp.

As its Hebrew name demonstrates, in Yavan – Greek culture, wisdom is a means of achieving self-gratification. True there is great philosophy, but it also served to justify the basest expressions of human nature.

So when the Jews identified that key difference between Jewish wisdom and Hellenist wisdom they started to resist. When the Greeks realized that Mr. Nice Guy was not going to work, they slipped down from yud to vav to final nun and acted like barbaric savages to enforce their “enlightened ways” upon the Jewish people. The Jews resisted. G-d came to the rescue. The Chanukah miracles took place. The rest, as they say, is history. Have some latkes and a very happy Chanukah!

By the way, history, as they say, has a way of repeating itself. Look out for the Chanukah story playing out again in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Resolving Inner Conflict

Resolving inner conflict is an important goal. As human beings we are pulled to the allure of a corporeal life of material pursuits and physical gratification. This is bolstered by repeated societal attempts to argue G-d and the Torah out of existence. On the other hand, we have a moral compass called the soul, which has been fortified by the values and teachings of our faith and upbringing. If survival of the fittest is the rule by which the game of life is played, then we need to take one approach to life. If meaningful and G-dly living is what it’s all about, that requires an entirely different approach to life. Even if we accept that Torah is the way to go, we are still confronting the other side of our personality and the world. How do we ensure the ascendancy of the spiritual over the material, of form over matter?

Although, in this case, the battlefield is our conscience, parallels can be drawn from external conflict. Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad, was imprisoned by the Czarist government in 1798 and was released on this day, the 19th of Kislev. He recalls that he received the news of his release as he was in middle reciting a verse in Psalm 55, “He redeemed my soul with peace from the battle that came close upon me, because of the many who were with me.”

This passage became a launching point from which seven generations of Chabad Rebbes addressed the issue of conflict resolution. I would like to briefly share a teaching by our Rebbe.

There can be two ways of resolving conflict – peaceably or through battle. The conflict can also take on two forms – close confrontation or from a distance. What this passage teaches us is that the ideal way to resolve is through peace and from up close.

Battling the urges of the body and the world could be achieved by arguing point by point why the soul’s way is better. Peaceable resolution could be achieved when the force of good is so powerful that an argument is unnecessary. These two approaches reflect the two dimensions of Torah, the rational and the mystical. The rational approach uses philosophical arguments to defend the supremacy of G-dly living. That may or may not be successful in winning the battle. The mystical dimension, especially when it is fused with an intellectual dynamic (like the teachings of Chassidus), fortify a person with so much positivity and spirituality that arguments are not needed. This is called peaceable resolution of the internal conflict.

There is a risk of escapism with this approach. One might think that since the soul and the Torah are so superior to mundane life, it would be best to abandon the world altogether and live in isolation. The passage addresses by instructing that the confrontation must be from up close. We need to engage the world so that we can influence it. Escapism may resolve our personal conflict, but it will do nothing for G-d’s plan to have this world revealed as a Divine dwelling.

Finally we need to recall that to really be successful, we have to have the “many with us,” i.e. a positive relationship with others. Through love and fellowship we can accomplish much more, utilizing the power of the crowd.

Chassidim wish each other a good yomtov on this special day, which spawned over two centuries of inspiration through the teachings of Chassidus. Have a good yomtov, a good Shabbos and a happy Chanukah!

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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