ChabadNewOrleans Blog

Humanizing Criminals

Regular readers of these weekly thoughts are aware that I have some experience with prison chaplaincy. Over the past 18 years I have seen federal, state and parish prisons on the inside, including the infamous state penitentiary at Angola. Thankfully, the conditions and treatment of prisoners in this country are nothing like those under Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot. After all, we live in a nation of laws and human rights. That being said, there is much room for improvement, both regarding prison life as well as sentencing reform.

I have encountered many prison officials and officers that have deep respect for the dignity and humanity of the inmates. I have also seen many who seem to view them as subhuman. This is a dangerous slippery slope to which can be traced much of the injustice in the prison and justice system. A criminal, despite the crime that he committed, and it may very well be a real crime against another or many other humans, is still a person, who is entitled to human dignity. This does not diminish the negativity of the criminal act or its impact on the victim. One can be wrong and liable for punishment while still retaining the right to human dignity.

I would like to cite a proof from this week’s Torah portion. When discussing the penalty for theft, the Torah says that a thief who is caught must make restitution at double the amount of what he stole. If the theft is of an ox or sheep, which he then slaughtered or sold, the thief must pay four times the value of the sheep and five times the value of the ox. Why the difference between an ox and a sheep? Rashi brings two opinions. (I cite them in reverse order to make the point.) Rabbi Meir says, that because the ox can work, the loss to owner is greater than that of the sheep, which does not work. Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai says, that G-d is considerate of human dignity. While the ox walks on its own, the sheep must be carried by the thief over his shoulder. Therefore the payment is reduced because of the indignity suffered by the thief.

I can hear the indignation, “Poor little thief had to carry the sheep on his shoulder in order to steal and we should give a reduction in his punishment because of that?” Yet this is precisely what the Torah says. Every human being has dignity that is honored by his Creator. Even a criminal, who has stooped so low as to violate someone’s property or even life, is still entitled to basic human dignity.

As for those “members of the tribe” in prison, thanks to organizations like the Aleph Institute, who have advocated for Jewish prisoners for many years, much progress has been made in restoring some of that dignity to their lives and their religious rights as Jews in prison. We still have a long way to go in changing the attitudes and practices of our justice and prison systems as it relates to sentencing and incarceration of all prisoners regardless of who they are. A good start would be to recall that every human being, even a criminal, is afforded this basic human dignity by G-d, of which we must always be aware and respect.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


Individuality and our new baby girl

Our community has had a wonderful boom of babies being born recently, including our own daughter, Miriam Henna, born last night. She is named after my Bubby Gordon ( and Malkie’s aunt Henny Machlis ( As many of you know, she is not our first child. She is blessed with a number of older brothers and sisters, thank G-d. I know some folks might be wondering if there is ever a point where the value of the child may be diminished by the size of the family. As I sat in the hospital with Malkie yesterday during her labor, I thought back to a video of a talk by the Rebbe, which we showed in Chabad House just 9 days earlier. It was focused on the narrative in this week’s Parasha, the Ten Commandments. While the video was playing, I was sitting next a member of our community, whose wife was also expecting a baby shortly. I turned and commented to him how inspiring this talk was to families who were welcoming a new child into their lives.

The Rebbe highlighted the idea that in the Holy Tongue there is a difference between the singular you and a plural you. He referenced the old English term “thou,” which had fallen out of use, as a parallel. He pointed out that while the Torah mostly addresses the collective you (y’all or ye) of the Jewish people, the Ten Commandments were addressed entirely to the singular you (thou). The intent of the singular use of you is that G-d was speaking to each person individually and not to the group as a collective. This ties in to the Midrash that every single soul that would ever be born or converted as a Jew was present when G-d spoke at Sinai. Indeed, were this not the case, then those later souls born, would not have been brought into the covenant that G-d established with each individual.

The Rebbe concluded, that a message we can take away from this teaching, is the value of each individual. He emphasized this notion by exclaiming, that a Jewish baby born over three thousand years after Revelation at Sinai, possibly even to a family that already has other children, is the singular individual to whom Hashem addressed Himself when He declared, “I am the L-rd your G-d.” It is as if that, pertaining to the connection between Hashem and this baby, nobody else needs to be part of the equation. This child has infinite value to Hashem, so much so, that Hashem spoke to this child “individual to individual” at Mount Sinai.

While Judaism certainly acknowledges and underscores the significance of the collective (this is reflected both in Halacha as well as in Kabbala), nevertheless individuality plays an extremely significant role in the Jewish outlook on life. Each of the children born may be the next Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides, Devorah or Esther; or he or she may be the next unheralded Jew who goes about life serving the Creator in a way that warranted Hashem having that personal conversation with him or her over 3,300 years ago.

Welcome to world Miriam Henna. Hashem has been waiting 5,777 years for you to stamp your impact on His universe. Hopefully this is the one that brings us all collectively to the era of Redemption speedily.

Good Shabbos
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


From Sapling to Tree

This Shabbat is the 15th of Shevat, known as the New Year for trees. Of course we celebrate for/with them, because, as the Torah points out, our lives mirror trees in many ways. You start with a seed, which, with cultivation becomes a seedling. After further nurturing the seedling develops into a sapling. Finally, with additional care, the sapling becomes a mature tree.

A human being goes through similar stages. Starting as a fetus it then is born as an infant, followed by the various phases of childhood, and then ultimately the baby becomes an adult. As with a tree, each stage of a person’s development requires care and nurturing. A Jewish child, in addition to cultivating the physical, emotional and moral developments of life, must also have the nurturing of the spirit – the Yiddishkeit. As we invest in our children and see them grow and develop into healthy, functioning, productive members of society and the Jewish people, this is called Nachas. The positive development of a child requires input from many angles, beginning with parents and family, continuing with educators, mentors and role models and including also the community and society. When the child is in a healthy and positive environment this contributes significantly to his or her growth as a person and a Jew.

This weekend our community has the opportunity of seeing one of our saplings becoming a tree. Yosef Yitzchok (Yitzi) Lew had his bris at Chabad House, followed by his upshernish, and we have seen him grow on a weekly basis in Shul on Shabbos. He attends Torah Academy, and I have had the pleasure of preparing him for his Bar Mitzvah.

It has been a treat to watch him grow up and become serious about Yiddishkeit before our very eyes. He has taken to Torah learning and spiritual growth like a fish in water. He has a passion for the Shul and our daily Minyan. (I hope he serves as an inspiration for others with his dedication to the daily Minyan.) He has discovered a love for Chassidus and the teachings of the Rebbe that burns like a fire in his heart. Yitzi is giving much nachas to his parents, grandparents, family and the whole community. My wish for him is that he be able to maintain this passion for everything good for many long and healthy years. Mazel Tov!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


Outsider Leadership

We are instructed (as per Rabbi Schenur Zalman of Liadi) to live with the times, namely the weekly Torah potion. Furthermore, as the Shelah points out, we can find parallels between the weekly parasha and the time of the year during which it is read.

These past few Torah portions have introduced us to Moses, the great Jewish leader who took us out of Egypt, split the sea, received the Torah, performed the miracles and led our people through the desert for 40 years. It is safe to say that Moshe helped shape the identity of the Jewish people and the Jewish religion through his leadership.

By Divine Providence we read these Torah portions around the month of Shevat. The 10th of Shevat is the Yahrtzeit of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe and the day that our Rebbe assumed the leadership of Chabad.

One of the most fascinating things about Moshe’s childhood was that he was raised apart from his people, as an adopted price in the royal palace of Egypt. While there he was certainly afforded all of the privileges of royalty and most definitely did not personally experience the hardships of his people’s enslavement. This can cause us to wonder if he would be the ideal choice for a leader, being that he may lack a sense of identification with the narrative of his nation.

The Ibn Ezra (12th century Jewish sage and commentator) suggests that, “Perhaps G‑d caused Moses to grow up in the home of royalty, so that his soul would be accustomed to a higher sense of learning and behavior, and he would not feel lowly and accustomed to a house of slavery.” He then cites several instances in Moshe’s life where he acted nobly in saving people from distress. This implies that Moshe needed to be able to reach beyond the “slave mentality” in order to come up with the courage and fortitude necessary to liberate them.

Ibn Ezra continues, “Had he grown up among his brethren, and they would know him from his childhood days, they wouldn’t have the same sense of respect, because he would be regarded as one of them.” It’s is hard to seamlessly transition from being “one the boys” to being the boss. When people remind him that, “I was at your bris” or “I babysat you and man were you a wild kid” that makes it tough to command the respect required for successful leadership.

This in no way suggests that every leader who comes up through the ranks or from a familiar environment is unqualified. Rather, when it comes to a major revolutionary shift, the likes of which Moshe brought to the Jewish nation and the world, something a little different could be useful.

I would like to hesitantly suggest a parallel between some of these leadership aspects of Moshe and similar qualities in the Rebbe. The previous Rebbe was the sixth generation of leadership in Chabad. His father, grandfather, great-grandfather and so forth were all Rebbes. He grew up in Lubavitch and was active and involved in his father’s activities from a young age, especially the special Yeshiva that the fifth Rebbe founded in the town of Lubavitch, Tomchei Temimim.

Upon his passing, some questioned his son-in-law’s qualifications to be a Rebbe of Chabad. While the Rebbe was a distant cousin, and his father was a faithful Chosid, yet he did not grow up in Lubavitch, nor did he attend the Yeshiva there. He really was an outsider vis-a-vis the “Lubavitch scene.” Furthermore the Rebbe had spent time in university, very much an anomaly, even an anathema in Chassidic circles. Yet we find that the Rebbe propelled Chabad’s reach and influence truly transforming the Jewish world. Perhaps some out-of-the-box perspective contributed to that success.

Either way, as we read these Torah portions and mark this special anniversary of the Rebbe’s leadership it behooves us to take to heart the example of these great leaders and be inspired to implement their direction into our own lives.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


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