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Stop! Please Stop!

In a democracy of any sort, elections are very important. Every four years we are told that this upcoming presidential election is more important than ever. Perhaps this time that is not even an exaggeration. Each of us has a constitutionally protected right to express our political opinion and to advocate for it in discussion with others. I am all for people exercising that right.

However, I (along with billions of other humans) have been observing a disturbing trend when it comes to political discussions. This trend holds true regarding in-person discussions, but it even more prevalent and virulent when it comes to online discussions, and on social media. Instead of the discussions remaining in the realm of ideas and concepts, they are increasingly turning into personal conflicts. I get that people are passionate about the issues and their candidates, but that does not give license to wholesale insult anyone that disagrees with you. This is a massive problem, even among close friends and family members. People are unfriending each other, not just on Facebook, but in real life.

There is a verse in Isaiah (55:7), “Let the evil one abandon his way and the man of iniquity his thoughts.” The Tzemach Tzedek (third Chabad Rebbe) taught, that the Hebrew word for iniquity can also be vowelized to mean “strong willed.” A person must not go around believing and declaring that my way of understanding is the only way. We always need to consider the view of another. It does not mean we have to agree, but at least respectfully consider the other view.

We are at a point where a large percentage of those engaging in political speech on social media or elsewhere, are so convinced of the infallibility of their opinion, that they do not even give the other person the respectful courtesy of actually paying attention to what they are saying. Even as we listen to others, we are usually just absorbing their words for the purpose of a rebuttal, or even worse, to use their words against them in an insulting manner.

I am going to go out on a limb and opine, that America will survive the results of this election one way or the other (just my opinion – fee free to disagree). But the fallout over the nastiness and the divisive dialogue (not among the politicians, but) between people, threatens to have more ominous ramifications for society and humanity as a whole.

So by all means, express your opinion, advocate for your side, electioneer for your guy, and even use hyperbole or other forms of persuasion. But please, don’t get personal. Don’t insult your friend, your brother, sister or cousin, your neighbor, or your fellow occupant of planet earth.

Finally, take a moment to open your ears, your mind and your heart to the perspective of another. Two people can observe the same phenomenon and perceive it in diametrically opposite ways. Our perception may be colored by personal experience, family history, or some knowledge and insight that we possess. The other people also have compelling reasons that are driving their perception.

Remember that on November 4 (or whenever the election results are finalized) we still have to share our lives and our society with the other folks. Let us not poison our ability to do so. Concerning Torah Proverbs (3:18) states, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.” May we indeed have Shalom!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Keep on dancing with the Torah

Last weekend we celebrated Simchat Torah, the holiday that emphasizes how precious the Torah is to us. Even though the Torahs are wrapped up and covered during the dancing, indicating that we all share an equal association with the Torah, yet, the ultimate goal is to translate the celebration into a new enthusiasm for the study of Torah.

The Chabad Rebbes would make the following declaration at the conclusion of Simchat Torah: “V’Yaakov Halach L’darko – and Jacob went on his way.” This was an encouragement to take all of the inspiration of the holiday month and translate it into an energy that uplifts everyday life.

Quite often we make idealistic resolutions. The challenge is to pragmatize those ideals and apply them into action. On Simchat Torah we dream of a renewed commitment to Torah study for the coming year. Then the holiday ends and we find it challenging to make those dreams a reality. At times, what a person needs, is an opportunity to present itself that will enable one to make that transition from “if only” to “absolutely.”

I would like to share with you an opportunity here in our community to quench your desire for quality Torah learning. The Jewish Learning Institute has developed another tantalizing course entitled “Secrets of the Bible.” This course takes six intriguing Biblical narratives and dissects them using the knife of Jewish mysticism and Chassidus. Stories like Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge, Noah’s Ark, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, the Golden Calf, and the Korach Rebellion, are guaranteed to capture your attention. As always, the inner dimension of these stories will leave us with much food for thought and incisive insights into our own longing for self-improvement.

The six-week course will be offered beginning in early November at Chabad Uptown, taught by yours truly (Rabbi Mendel Rivkin), and at Chabad Metairie, taught by Rabbi Mendel Ceitlin, starting the last week of October. Each location will offer an in-person option as well as a separate Zoom option. Chabad Uptown classes will be held on Wednesdays and Chabad Metairie will hold the classes on Tuesdays. Details about registration, pricing, and exact schedules will be released in the middle of next week, G-d willing. The first class will be free and open to the public in both venues with rsvp required.

Do not let this opportunity pass you up! Don’t allow another year of empty Simchat Torah dreams to go by. Grab hold of yourself and make the commitment to participating in Secrets of the Bible this fall/winter. We look forward to sharing this adventure with you.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Don't Let the Grinch Steal Sukkot!

This Grinch named COVID-19 has stolen our Jewish holidays in 2020. None of them were able to be observed in a “normal” manner. We had solo Passover seders. Shavuot with no gatherings. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with many people avoiding in person Synagogue services. We have been Zooming all around the world without getting off of the couch for 6 months.

Now Sukkot is here. This is the one holiday that COVID cannot take from us. In fact Sukkot must be observed outdoors in the Sukkah. What we know about this virus informs us that outdoors is a safer environment than indoors. So do not allow the Grinch to steal this one from you. Be part of a Sukkot celebration. Build you own Sukkah and celebrate. Join us for Sukkah Fest (see below for details) or reach out to Chabad of Metairie for a personal visit by the Sukkah on Wheels. Let us know if you would like to get together in our Sukkah to perform the Mitzvah of Lulav and Etrog and grab a bite to eat.

There is a fellow in Brooklyn who built a Sukkah that is a block long. He is trying to help people who need a Sukkah, but due to COVID do not want to be in a small cramped environment. In fact the Talmud says that when Mashiach comes, G-d will construct a Sukkah that is large enough to hold the entire Jewish people at once.

What we take from this is that we can be safe while at the same time be united and enveloped together by our Sukkah. We made our Sukkah a little bigger in the hope that we can host people in a safe way as well.

Wishing you all a safe and happy Sukkot!
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

Yom Kippur and the No-Kvetch Zone

Before Yom Kippur people commonly wish one another to have an easy fast. This is a very nice sentiment, as refraining from eating and especially drinking for over 24 hours is not so simple. Yet at the same time, I am somewhat bothered by the kvetching about the fast during Yom Kippur itself. I know that Jews are “Born to Kvetch” (as the saying goes), but somehow I would hope that we could rise above it for just this one day a year.

There an axiom from one of the Chabad Rebbes about Yom Kippur – “On Yom Kippur, who even wants to eat?” In other words, Yom Kippur is about entering a sublime space in our spirituality. The reason for not eating on Yom Kippur is not to punish ourselves for sinning, but because it is such a holy day, infused with such intense spirituality, that eating is out of the question. Yom Kippur is like experiencing heaven on earth. Yom Kippur is a day of the Neshama.

True, we are a combination of body and soul, and our job is to elevate the body rather than neglecting it. True, that we are earthly inhabitants, and our task is to elevate the earthliness rather than ignore it. True, that for a Jew, eating properly with the right intent is a means of serving Hashem. However, in order to achieve those goals on the other days of the year, we need to have one day where we levitate above it all. We have one day where the body is sidelined. We have one day where physicality is suppressed. With the inspiration of this one day, we are able to come charging powerfully back toward those goals for the rest of the year.

So let’s institute a “No-Kvetch Zone” this Yom Kippur and enjoy the meaningful experience that it is intended to be.

On a different note, Hurricane Sally took aim at Chabad of Pensacola, leaving them with major damage. Let’s help them rebuild their facility and their community. www.charidy.com/pensacola.  

Wishing you a meaningful Yom Kippur and an easy fast!!
Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Religion & Politics

Everybody and their grandmother has an opinion of whether religion and politics are a good mix. For me, I avoid taking public stances on political issues, because my “job” is to encourage people to enhance their relationship with Hashem through Torah and Mitzvot, without getting involved in the distractions of political differences between folks.

That being said, I want to wade ever so slightly into the religion and politics connection strictly for the purpose of drawing a parallel. One of the certain things about politics, especially in our time, is that it evokes strong passion. Just take a peek at any social media platform, and you will find people passionately declaring that if you vote for this one, you are literally disavowing your G-d, your people, your family and the future of the universe. Then you will find people proclaiming the exact same thing about the other candidate. Even the people that are dispassionate about politics or the current political climate, are passionately dispassionate. They want ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with any of it.

Now politics is important and political decisions have ramifications – “elections matter.” Yet in the broad scope of things, our relationship with Hashem is so much more important. The ramifications on our lives, the universe, and history are far-reaching.

I would love to see people demonstrate the same passion, as they respectfully and tastefully discuss how important Judaism is to them, or how valuable it is to have a life of connection with Hashem. Not in a way of putting others down, but rather in a way that encourages others to explore that relationship with Hashem in their own lives. Talk about what excites you about something you studied in the Torah. Talk about how special it is for your family to celebrate this holiday or observe that tradition.

As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and the high holidays of 5781, let’s get really passionate about Yiddishkeit. This will enhance our own experience of the holidays, and convey a powerful positive message to those around about what is important.

“As water reflects the face, so does the heart of one man reflect another.” (Proverbs, 27:19) Our expression of love and passion towards Hashem will generate a reflection of Hashem’s love and passion towards us. This brings with it the blessings of good health, prosperity, nachas, peace and meaningful spiritual growth for us and all of our loved ones.

Shana Tova Umesukah – wishing you a good and sweet year!
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Feeling Judged and Loving It!

One of the things that most people least appreciate is the feeling of being judged by another. In fact when a person or a group is deemed to be non-judgmental, that is a compliment of the highest order. So it is no wonder that some folks might be a bit uncomfortable with the notion of Rosh Hashanah being Yom Hadin - the Day of Judgement. Let me share why I think that rather than being uncomfortable with it, we should actually embrace it!

The problem with being judged by another is that the other doesn’t know our circumstances and is not aware of the state of our mind and heart. All they see is the external action and result. Furthermore, and maybe even more important, we cannot know for sure that the other loves us and wants what is best for us. Even if we are convinced that they do, that love and caring would rarely, if ever, be as powerful as the love we have for ourselves along with the ability to put our faults and shortcomings in context. So it is possible that even the judgement of a loving parent, a close relative or friend, can make us uncomfortable.

However, when the one judging us knows us even better than we know ourselves, and loves us far more that we are capable of loving ourselves, then we have nothing to worry about. Such judgement is solely for our benefit and can only bring superbly positive results.

King David echoes this sentiment in Psalm 27, which we recite twice daily during Elul and all though the holidays. He proclaims, “Though my father and mother have forsaken me, the L-rd has taken me in.” Even in a situation where the judgment of one’s own loving parents leave one with a sense of being forsaken, we know that “Hashem takes us in.”

So embrace the opportunity to be judged by the One Who loves you and knows you more than anyone out there including yourself. It can be a most rewarding experience.

May G-d grant each and every one of us a Shana Tova – a good and sweet year of health, prosperity, meaningful spiritual growth and nachas. May Hashem bless our world with healing and peace through the coming of Moshiach speedily.

For a list of Rosh Hashanah services and options at Chabad Uptown, go to www.chabadneworleans.com/highholidays2020.

For Metairie: www.jewishlouisiana.com/highholidays.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Relinquish Control

As many of you know, I have served as a prison chaplain for over 20 years. It is not often that I hear from the folks that I visit after their release. This week I had the pleasure of communicating with a man that I have come to regard as a friend over the years that I have been visiting with him.

He was serving a lengthy sentence which was exacerbated by the fact that he refused to testify against others. He had been challenging his sentence for over 9 years. With each visit, I observed the great strides he was making as a Jew and a person. Unfortunately COVID-19 precluded me from visiting, and we had not seen each other since February. Appeal after appeal was denied. As each door to freedom closed, the chances seemed slimmer and slimmer that he would not have to serve out his full sentence of another 10 years. When the final appeal was denied, he felt a sense of being let down by G-d. He drew strength from the Jewish literature that he had, and determined to change his mind set and attitude toward Hashem. He sat down that evening and contemplated all the positive things that Hashem had given him in life. He then offered a sincere expression of thanksgiving to Hashem. He concluded his prayer by saying, “Hashem, I am putting this all into Your hands. Whatever You do is for my good.”

The next morning he got a message that his case manager wanted to see him. He walked in and she asked him if he had someone that could come pick him up. He was taken aback and asked her what she meant. She informed him that the judge discovered a brief that had been omitted from his case file when she was deciding the appeal. Now that she read it she decided to release him, and because of COVID, it would be effective immediately. They had never heard of such a thing and yet it was real. It was so unusual, that the halfway house to which he was released, insisted on keeping him for an extra few days in case they would discover that it was a mistake and he would need to go back to prison.

When we spoke, we mused over the amazing fact that as soon as he relinquished control to Hashem, there was immediate transformation of his situation from misery to joy, from imprisonment to freedom.

May each of us discover the spiritual strength to similarly relinquish control to Hashem, coupled with a sense of profound gratitude for the abundance with which He has already blessed us. May we all merit to see Hashem’s open and revealed blessings in our lives as He showers with a good and sweet new year.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

The Good Old Days

Last month a member of our community placed a greeting in our Jewish Art Calendar that I found to be quite unique. I am not going to give the person’s name without their permission but you can see it when the calendar arrives. The greeting reads – “Chadesh Yameinu K’kedem.” This is a quote from chapter five of Lamentations which means, “Renew our days as of old.” I do not profess to know what the intended message was in the greeting. Perhaps there were multiple applications. But I would like to spend a moment on what we might derive from the words.

One of the things we hear constantly during this “twilight zone” of a time in which we live, is the yearning to go back to “normal.” Some say there will only be a “new normal,” implying that we can never return to what once was. In general people like to engage in nostalgic reflections about the “good old days.” “Back in the day” things were much better or much different. We didn’t have to deal with this or that…

Are we really looking forward merely to return to the “good old days?” Do we not have greater aspirations for a universe improved beyond what once was?

Let’s take a look at the original quote and what it means in that context. The Prophet Jeremiah is expressing the sentiment of the Jewish people following the destruction of the First Temple. He proclaims in their voice, “Restore us to You, O L-rd, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old.” Some commentators explain, that the people were yearning for the time before the destruction, when they had a glorious temple and an opportunity for great closeness to Hashem. Others offer the explanation that they were yearning for the “days of old” – meaning the era of the Exodus from Egypt when G-d initiated the relationship with the people of Israel.

Kabbala often defines the term Kedem (which we define – as before – days of old) in the context of Kadmon, primordial. In other words, it is not just what once was, but rather deepest potential for what could ever be.

The Rebbe in a letter to then president of Israel Yitzchak ben Zvi, writes, “From the time I was a schoolchild—and even before—a vision of the future Redemption began to form in my mind: Such a Redemption that all the suffering of exile, the persecutions and mass destruction will finally be understood. And understood in the fullest sense, with a complete heart, to the point that we will look back and say thank you to G‑d for all that we went through.”

Clearly, it is not sufficient for us to return to “normal” because then the experience will have been wasted. Somehow we are meant to come out of an unusually challenging experience with a renewed perspective on what is valuable. We are supposed to grow and be stronger. And from a spiritual standpoint, to quote the Maharal of Prague, “real change can only come about when the old paradigm disintegrates and the renewal forms “over the ashes” of the old.” It is vital for us to seek growth from our end coming from a challenge such as the current times. At the same time we are to expect from Hashem’s end, that something incomparably greater emerge on the other end of the challenge.  

Speaking of nostalgia, I invite you all to join me and two of my closest friends from Yeshiva as we get together in a virtual discussion about Rosh Hashanah next Thursday. See below for more details.

I sign off with a wish for the new year, “Chadesh Yameinu K’kedem” renew our days, not just like the good old days, but greater than we could even imagine.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

A Bloody Mitzvah

Yesterday I had the privilege of being a blood donor. Now, as much as ever, a good supply of blood is needed to ensure that lifesaving transfusions can be performed when necessary. In addition, the testing on donated blood may be able to aid the effort to stem the COVID-19 pandemic.

You might ask why I refer to this as a privilege. Why not a responsibility? It is actually both. If one is medically qualified to do so, one should feel the responsibility. But it is also a privilege since it is a Mitzvah helping another and aiding in the saving of life. As I lay on the chair during the process, I reflected on two news stories that I read in the last few years on related topics.

Early on in the COVID situation, it become clear that plasma donated by those who recovered from COVID, could be very useful in developing therapeutic procedures to deal with the disease. While millions of people have had COVID, the highest percentage of people to come forward to donate plasma were observant Jews.

See here for a few articles on the topic. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/covid-19-mitzvah-orthodox-jews-donate-blood-plasma-thousands-n1232656

https://forward.com/news/national/444562/coronavirus-convalescent-plasma-orthodox-jews-hasidic/

In recent years, there has been a lot in the news about living kidney donors. I read a 2017 statistic, that 15% of living kidney donors were “Orthodox” Jews. This is an astounding statistic. Jews make up only 2% of the US population. Those who are classified as “Orthodox” make up only 10% of that. So we are talking about a statistical non-entity and yet they make up 15% of living kidney donors. (I use quotation marks around the word Orthodox because I have very little use for labels – but I have to use the terms that are out there for the purpose of this discussion.)

See here for more on the topic. https://www.chabad.org/news/article_cdo/aid/4251073/jewish/Rare-Kindness-Kidney-Donor-Rabbi-Donates-His-Liver.htm

https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/community/articles/to-save-a-strangers-life

http://kidneymitzvah.com/

https://www.renewal.org/

What is motivating all this? Walking the walk is way more impactful than talking the talk. When you believe that there is a mandate from Hashem to help others even at a reasonable cost to yourself, you are motivated. This is Tikkun Olam in action. This is loving your fellow as yourself in action. May Hashem bless our world with true healing so that these ideas become obsolete. May Hashem bless each and every one of us with a good and sweet new year, filled with health, prosperity, nachas and meaningful spiritual growth! May he send us the Redemption and the coming of Moshiach speedily!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Our Glorious Future

This past Monday we marked the Yahrtzeit of the Rebbe’s father, R’ Levi Yitzchok Schneerson, who passed away in 1944 while exiled in Kazakhstan. He served as the Rabbi of Yekatrinaslav (Dnipro) in Ukraine for many decades, where he worked tirelessly in defense of Judaism and the Jewish people in the Soviet Union. He was arrested before Pesach in 1939 and eventually he was sentenced to 5 years of exile in Chi’li, a hamlet deep in Kazakhstan. After being banished to Chi’li, he was eventually joined by his wife, Rebbetzin Chana, who remained with him until his passing. She kept a journal, which was published and translated a few years ago.

Malkie and I are privileged to have children named for R’ Levi Yitzchok and Rebbetzin Chana, who we view as our “spiritual grandparents.” Reading her diary was very poignant for me, helping me gain further appreciation for their sacrifice. It also heightened our recognition of how special it is that even under such trying circumstances he was able to produce profound scholarly writings, most notably in the realm of Kabbala.

In one of her diary entries, Rebbetzin Chana describes Pesach of 1940, their first in Kazakhstan. The previous Pesach they had been separated as he was in prison. She talks about how difficult it was to find proper lodgings – when just two weeks before Pesach they were evicted for using too much water to clean their space. She depicts her 4 hour train journey to a “nearby” town that had a greater concentration of Jewish exiles, so that she could get Matzah and a new tin pail in which to cook. They managed to find a Jew to invite as a guest to their Seder. Finally she describes the actual Seder. The three of them were sitting together, while Kazakh peasants were scoffing at their “celebration” just outside the window. They had almost nothing on the table. Everything but the Matzah was makeshift. Yet the Rav led a spirited Seder replete with singing and lengthy discussion that lasted until 2 AM. He talked about our glorious past. Though the present was not so gratifying, he talked about our hope for a glorious future.

80 years later, while we are not facing as grim a situation as they experienced, people are worried about the present. There is the pandemic, the economy, anti-Semitism, the state of our country and the world. People are worried. As Jews we must know that, first of all Hashem is in control. So therefore we have nothing to worry about even in the present. Secondly, even as the present doesn’t appear to be rosy, we have our hope and assurance of a glorious future.

As we prepare for the upcoming Jewish New Year of 5781, we pray that Hashem blesses each of us and all of us together, with open and revealed good. A good and also sweet year, so good that we can actually taste the goodness. May this be the beginning of our glorious future.

Shana Tova and Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Have a Heart

In 1991, the legendary Jewish musician Moshe Yess collaborated on an animated Jewish Sci-fi film called Roburg. The quality of the animation was so-so, but the plot was interesting. It was about a CIA project to create an AI bot that they named Roburg. Why? Because there was a malfunction in the processor that caused the communications to switch to Hebrew sometimes. So they gave the robot a “Jewish” name, Roburg. At some point in the story, Roburg escapes from the lab in Arizona and hitches a ride to Brooklyn, where he convinces a Rabbi to teach him Torah. Upon learning about Tzedakah, he has a strong urge to help a little girl get the money she needs to have a life saving operation. When his handlers catch up with him, he agrees to go back to the lab on the condition that they allow him to keep studying Torah, and that the US government will pay for the girl’s operation. In the end his Rabbi says to him, “Roburg not only have you studied Torah but you have also shown that you have a heart.”

In truth AI cannot have a heart. Even the most sophisticated and advanced developments of AI can mimic emotions and pick up on inflections, but it cannot truly have a heart. On a side note, this week a Facebook algorithm banned a Chabad Rabbi in Manhattan from the social media platform, accusing him of COVID-19 misinformation. His sin? He wrote the following, “The cure for COVID-19 is to be found in this week’s Torah portion.” The algorithm having no heart, could not pick up on the nuanced difference between that statement and real misinformation. (Alright, maybe the supervisor could have done a better job programming the system.)

“Having a heart” requires being a real person. In fact, the Torah tells us over and over again how important having a heart is. In last week’s Parsha as well as in this week’s Parsha, the phrase “know with your heart” is repeatedly used. It is not sufficient to have an intellectual awareness of G-d. It is not enough to know in your mind that you need to be concerned about the needs of others. We must know with our hearts. The emotions cause us to be invested in that of which we were intellectually aware. This balance of mind and heart is the ultimate perfection of human achievement. In our relationship with Hashem and our commitment to the Torah, the intellect gives us the capacity for sustainability and the emotion gives us the capacity for being invested and passionate.

The importance of having a heart balanced with having a mind, is a recurring theme in many ethical and philosophical disciplines of Torah. So, “have a heart” and enjoy your Yiddishkeit.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

We are not anti-anti-Semites

I tuned in to the first two segments of the NCJW series on anti-Semitism, where were quite edifying. The first presenter, Dr. Gil Troy, said something that caught my attention. He was addressing the idea that Jews must not allow themselves to be defined or obsessed with those that hate us. He quoted someone (I cannot recall who) as saying, “We must be defined by Sinai rather than by Auschwitz.” I did not have the opportunity to ask the presenter how he applied this idea, but I will share mine. This was a very succinct way of summarizing an idea that I have argued for many times, including in this forum.

In fact, this week’s Torah portion tells us as much. Moshe instructs the Jewish people, “But beware and watch yourself very well, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw, and lest these things depart from your heart, all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your children and to your children's children. The day you stood before the L-rd your G-d at Horeb…” This passage has been immortalized as one of the six remembrances that we recite each day. (For more on that www.chabadneworleans.com/2263399.)

What does it mean that we are meant to remember something? The Hebrew word Zachor is a present tense active verb. It implies constancy. Of course we need to remember Auschwitz. In fact remembering what Amalek did to us is one of the six remembrances. It is not a stretch to apply that to the Holocaust. Of course we need to be aware of anti-Semitism around us in the present forms (from all sides). But that should not be what defines us as Jews. Our mandate for what defines us as Jews was given at Sinai. It is a mandate to promote light and lovingkindness.

This mandate is invigorating.

It is to live and be a shining example of what it means to believe in one G-d, who is the source of all that is good and moral in this world. To demonstrate a certainty in a system of morals that is not relativistic.

It is to live and be a shining example of what it means to be an honest and trustworthy person, not because of what someone else might think of you, but because that’s who you are supposed to be.

It is to live and be a shining example of what it means to be (at least) equally as devoted to our spiritual development as we are to our material growth.

It is to live and be a shining example of what it means to truly care for others, just because they were created in G-d’s image.   

It is to live and be a shining example of how a lowly human can have a passionate relationship with an infinite G-d.

We are a force for positivity not just a response to negativity.

I end with an appeal to the hearts of the readers of these words. Yesterday, I lost a classmate and friend. R’ Shimon Potash, with whom I spent several years in Yeshiva, died suddenly leaving a wife and six children behind. His health history did not allow him to take the steps needed to financially protect his family in the event of this tragedy. My classmates and I are trying to raise some money to provide his family with a little bit of breathing space while they grieve over their heartrending loss. I invite the members of our community to join me in this mitzvah. Please let me know if you would like to get involved. This is a truly just cause. May the merit of our Tzedakah bring comfort to the family and blessing to all those who participated. May Hashem grant our world the healing and comfort we all need through the coming of Moshiach speedily.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Loving Rebuke

There are two general approaches to offering rebuke. One is where the person offering the rebuke is looking to hear his own voice or satisfy a need to “do something about a situation” regardless of the outcome. The second is where the person offering the rebuke cares so deeply about his fellow that he seeks to help him better himself. In terms of impact, there is not even a doubt that the efficacy of the second approach is far superior to the first, and that its results are significantly more enduring.  

In Chassidic lore it explains, that to rebuke, one must first “pare his fingernails” so as to ensure that there is no wound to the other in the process. This is also to remove any self-serving interest from the process, making it entirely about the welfare of the other. This comes along with making sure that the dignity of the other person is maintained throughout and that the words are delivered in a loving manner.

The model for this approach is Moshe in this week’s Torah portion. He begins his final message to the Jewish people by gently reminding them of the instances when they rebelled against Hashem during their 40 year desert sojourn. Rashi is quick to point out that Moshe rebukes them in a subtle manner by merely alluding to their transgressions, by means of location or a nuanced detail of the occurrence. The Rebbe takes it a step further and points out, that the manner in which Moshe chastises, serves to actually minimize the extent of the transgression rather than play it up for dramatic emphasis. In short, there is no fire and brimstone in his delivery.

Why? Rashi explains, “Mipnei Kvodan Shel Yisrael – so as to maintain the dignity and honor of the people of Israel.” In other words, Moshe’s choice of words convey his love and respect for the people to whom he speaks.

The Rebbe concludes by highlighting the connection to the time of year that we read this parsha – the Shabbat before Tisha B’av. We have often discussed, that love and unity is the means by which we reverse the cause of exile and destruction – namely, baseless hatred for one another. The antidote is love and respect. Even as we rebuke a person for a transgression it is done with love and care to maintain the dignity of the other.

Please join us for our virtual farbrengen Saturday night for an expanded discussion on this topic. May Hashem take note of our love for each other and reverse the exile – bringing us to redemption very soon.

We would like to welcome Rabbi Levi and Sarah Partouche to our community. Levi has accepted a position as a Chaplain in LCMC medical system. We wish them much success in all of their endeavors.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin  

Taking Care of Father

We know that the Torah is very precise. Even proximity of passages is meaningful and instructive. In this week’s Parsha we go from a highly dramatic passage to a seemingly ho-hum passage. Moshe, knowing that he is going to pass away soon, appeals to Hashem that a qualified succession plan be implemented. Hashem tells Moshe that Yehoshua (Joshua) will be the next Jewish leader, who will shepherd the people across the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Moshe enthusiastically embraces his successor and confers some of his own spiritual power upon him. We then transition to Moshe instructing the Jewish people about the daily and seasonal offerings. Seems to be somewhat anti-climactic.

Rashi comments on the juxtaposition of the passages and explains using the following parable. A princess on her deathbed encourages her husband to look out for their children after she dies. The husband then turns to his wife and begs her to urge the children to look after their father upon her passing. Similarly, Moshe, on his deathbed, pleads with Hashem to make sure that the children are taken care of by appointing Joshua. To which Hashem rejoins, please urge the children to remember me. In this context Moshe instructs the Jewish people to remember the daily and seasonal offerings – to which he refers as “the bread for Hashem.” As if to say, through bringing the offerings we are taking care of Hashem’s sustenance. The proof is, that Hashem declares that the bringing of the offerings give him the “nachas” – the pleasure of His wishes being obeyed.

We have not had a temple or an altar for nearly 2,000 years. How then have we been “taking care of” our Father for all this time? Our sages proclaim, “Prayer has replaced the offerings during the time of exile.”

This ought to light a fire under our prayers. Prayer is not just our opportunity to ask Hashem to fill our needs. It is also our way of showing Hashem our love for Him. Prayer is referred to in Talmudic and mystical teachings as “the service of the heart.” Certainly, in the big scheme of things, Hashem does not have “needs.” But Hashem has decided that our service is meaningful and valuable to Him. In this sense, Hashem yearns for and eagerly anticipates our prayer. He wants to be lovingly connected to each and every one of us. So kids, make sure you are taking care of your Father!!

This past Tuesday, we held our donor appreciation event on Zoom. Click here if you would like to see a video of the event - https://youtu.be/9_gF-wMaWvA.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

When Negative is a Positive

Covid-19 testing is all the rage right now. As one of the most important weapons in the arsenal of our battle against the virus, communities are stepping up their testing in a big way. (So much so that there is a (hopefully temporary) supply chain issue right now…)

So what happens? You go and they jab the long swab up your nose and then you wait for results. What is the desired result you want to hear? Negative! Imagine that “negative” is actually a positive. How could negative be a positive? Simple. The negation of a negative is a positive. But it is really a positive or just a neutral non-negative? I will leave the answer to that question to the theorists. I would like to focus on a parallel situation wherein the negative actually was a positive.

Forty years into their journey through the Sinai desert (wilderness), the people of Israel were finally approaching the borders of the Promised Land. They had defeated the two powerful kings, Sichon and Og, who were hired by the neighboring nations to serve as the last line of defense against the Israelites. Balak, the King of Moav, is freaking out. His nation is in panic. The Yiddish are coming! He goes and hires the most powerful sorcerer of all time, Bilaam, to pronounce curses against the people of Israel to ensure their defeat.

The Torah describes how time and time again, Bilaam’s attempts to curse the Jewish people are thwarted and what comes out of his mouth are some of the most profound blessings in the Torah. Couched in beautiful poetry, Bilaam, our hated enemy, eloquently depicts the greatness of our people, the depth of our relationship with Hashem, and our role in the destiny of the universe.

Here is a sampling of his words: “For from their beginning, I see them as mountain peaks, and I behold them as hills; it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.” “He does not look at evil in Jacob, and has seen no perversity in Israel; the L-rd, his G-d, is with him, and he has the King's friendship.” “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel… He crouches and lies like a lion and like a lioness; who will dare rouse him? Those who bless you shall be blessed, and those who curse you shall be cursed.” “I see it, but not now; I behold it, but not soon. A star has gone forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel which will crush the princes of Moab and uproot all the sons of Seth. Edom shall be possessed, and Seir shall become the possession of his enemies, and Israel shall triumph.”

In the end the greatest negative, our antagonist Bilaam, became a positive through Hashem’s intervention. As Deuteronomy 23:6 states, “But the L-rd, your G-d, did not want to listen to Bilaam. So the L-rd, your G-d, transformed the curse into a blessing for you, because the L-rd, your G-d, loves you.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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