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Penitence Party

Tomorrow night we begin to recite Selichot – prayers of penitence. For many this marks the formal “kick-off” of high-holiday season. Often the Shul is already decked out in white instead of the year round colors. We pray with the somber tunes of the high-holidays. The liturgy is of a serious nature evoking feelings of repentance. Tears are shed for the regrets of the past and lost opportunities of the outgoing year, along with the earnest resolve to do better in the year to come. Our custom is to recite the Selichot on Saturday night at 1 AM (technically Sunday). In most places, (around Tulane being a notable exception,) it is quiet; and the only sound being Jewish people somberly hurrying to Shul for Selichot. You see little boys rubbing their eyes in tiredness from being woken up to go to Shul in middle of the night. The prayer books are open, the Chazzan is wrapped in a Talis as he declares in a loud voice the opening words of the service in the special tune. All of this serves to set the tone for the seriousness of the moment.

Yet, what many are not aware of, is that just a short while before Selichot begins, it is the Chabad custom to have a lively farbrengen, during which l’chaim is recited along with singing and words of inspiration. The farbrengen can get so lively that to quote “It is related that in Lubavitch, the Chassidim would farbreng on the nights of Selichot and they would come to the Selichot tottering from the farbrengen’s after-effects.”

So what’s the deal? Is Selichot a somber moment or a light one? How do we balance the lively farbrengen with the tears of regret? How do we justify this kind of seemingly irreverent behavior?

I will attempt to explain briefly. First of all, the two sentiments are not in conflict. It is possible to be both lively and joyous, while at the same recognizing the somber momentousness of the occasion. It is a matter of perspective. If we see Selichot solely as a time for self-improvement so that Hashem will bless us with a new year, then we will take ourselves and our needs very seriously, precluding the possibility of celebration and liveliness leading up to it.

If, however, we see Selichot as the beginning of the period of rededication to what Hashem “needs” us for, then a farbrengen, which elevates us above our self-centered focus, is the best preparation. So what about our needs? If we just worry about what we are needed for, who is going to make sure that we get the blessings that the cow gives milk, the chickens lay eggs, and the crops are plentiful?

According to the Torah, a master must take care of his servant’s needs and an employer must pay his worker so that he takes care of his family’s needs. If we are devoted to Hashem’s “needs” and desires, then Hashem will keep the other end of the bargain and take care of our needs and desires.

As we prepare for Selichot, let us raise a shot glass of L’chaim and sing joyously as we focus our devotion to what we are needed for and consequently Hashem will bless each and every one of us with a year of goodness and sweetness filled with health, prosperity and meaningful growth. May this be the year that we finally take the leap across the finish line into Redemption.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

The Last Brigade

This week in 1897, in a small town called Lubavitch, a Yeshiva was established by the fifth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Ber (Rebbe Rashab). The Yeshiva would later be named Tomchei Temimim. It was unique and distinct from every other Yeshiva that existed until that point, in that it called for integrating the study of Chassidic thought into the general curriculum. For many generations Chassidus had been studied by thousands. But it had never been made a formal part of a Yeshiva curriculum. Doing so would formalize its place in the very mission statement of the Yeshiva.

What was the goal of this unique institution? The founder clarified that in a lengthy address to the students on Simchat Torah two year later. He cited a verse in Psalms 89: “Your enemies have disgraced, O L-rd, that they have disgraced the footsteps of Your anointed.” The Rebbe Rashab explained that as we get closer to the time of Redemption there were two frontiers left to conquer, represented by the two types of disgrace referenced in the Psalm, the enemies of G-d, and those who disgrace the footsteps of the anointed (Moshiach).

This talk was an allusion to the challenge that was just around the corner, the godlessness of the Communist revolution. In truth the winds of secularism were blowing quite strongly across the Jewish world of Eastern Europe. Western European Jewry had almost entirely been transformed by secular modernity and it was starting to seep over the borders into Poland, Lithuania, Russian and Hungary. But the Bolsheviks and their Yevsektzia (Jewish sector) would take this fight up a notch or three. A group of well-fortified young Jews were going to be needed to confront this formidable challenge and ensure the survival of Torah Judaism. This was the first frontier that the Rebbe Rashab declared for which his army of Yeshiva students would battle.

Indeed, when nearly all other religious Jews either succumbed or fled, the lone group of defenders of the Torah and Hashem, were the young graduates of Tomchei Temimim. Under the leadership of the Rebbe Rashab’s successors, they would establish and maintain the network of underground Jewish institutions for 70 years.

This confrontation took on a different face when the battlefield moved to the free world. The strong desire of American Jews to fit in and assimilate, was as fierce a foe as the vicious stances of communism. But it was the same group of students and their next generation that took on the apathy and ignorance of the Jews of western civilization. They were inspired by the Rebbe to establish Chabad Houses in communities across the globe to uplift and illuminate the Jewish world.

The other challenge of living in freedom, was the lack of a sense of need for the time of Redemption. This is the second frontier. Chassidus shows how even a person who is living an inspired Jewish life, the glaring void of exile still looms large. While it may not come on the form of persecution or even assimilation, it is a gaping hole that can be filled on by G-dly revelation that is associated with Redemption.

119 years into the experiment, much progress has been made. The Rebbe Rashab’s prescience of challenges to come have been realized and confronted head-on. As we stand at the threshold of victory we are indeed grateful for his foresight and bold action that has brought us to where we are.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

Envious Angels on S. Carrollton

Last week I was driving down S. Carrollton Ave. Passing Belfast St., I saw a member of our community, Berry Silver, who is a realtor, showing someone a house in the neighborhood. His Yarmulke was perched on his head and his Tzitzis were flapping in the summer breeze. As I was thinking how nice it is to see such a sight in New Orleans, I recalled an encounter with the Rebbe that I heard about 25 years ago. Rabbi Pinchos Woolstone, a senior colleague, formerly of Sydney, Australia, shared this story with me in 1993. I spent that year in Sydney as a Rabbinic intern sent by the Rebbe along with a group of 15 friends.

Rabbi Woolstone reminisced about his teenage years, when he first got involved with Jewish observance through a Chabad Rabbi in Sydney. At one point, in response to a communication, the Rebbe remarked to him (I paraphrase in translation), “When a young man walks through Bondi Junction proudly displaying a Yarmulke and Tzitzis, the ministering angels on high envy the great Nachas this brings to Hashem.”

Bondi Junction is an area near the Yeshiva and the famous Bondi Beach. At that time it had a major train station and shopping area through which thousands of people passed every day. It has since developed into an entire neighborhood. Wearing visibly Jewish gear in Bondi Junction was a major statement about ones pride in his Jewish identity.

Baruch Hashem we have people in New Orleans proudly displaying their Jewish identity, thereby keeping the angels busy with their envy of the Nachas this brings to Hashem. We have come a long way since my days growing up in New Orleans. I remember walking through the halls of the JCC at the age of 10 and a kid stopping me to ask if that is how a Jew looks. I was wondering if he noticed the J in JCC on the outside of the building… We have come a long way indeed.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, I wish each of you, that Hashem inscribe and seal you for a sweet, healthy, prosperous and meaningful year of 5779.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

A New Day At TA / The Elul Snooze

What began as a big step toward a secure NOLA Jewish future in last spring, has now evolved into a giant leap. Just a few months after a successful launch to the “Burn The Mortgage Campaign” with a goal of $3.5 million, Torah Academy was presented with a significant naming gift, and will henceforth be known as “Joseph and Rosina Slater Torah Academy.” This gift by longtime member of the New Orleans Jewish community, Rosina Slater, brings the campaign to 80% percent of the goal. A naming dedication ceremony will be held within the month, with details to be released in the near future. For further dedication opportunities see www.torahacademynola.com/burn.

This coming Shabbat is the beginning of the month of Elul on the Jewish calendar. Elul represents a shift in focus as we look toward the Days of Awe – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe recalled the Elul atmosphere of his childhood town of Lubavitch. “On the Shabbat before Elul, though it was a clear, sunny day, there was a change in the air; one already smelled the Elul-scent, a Teshuvah-wind was blowing.”

One of the activities that helps us become Elul focused, is the daily sounding of the Shofar. Maimonides shares an interesting take on the purpose for sounding the Shofar. “Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a scriptural decree, it contains an allusion. It is as if (the shofar's call) is saying: Wake up you sleepy ones from your sleep and you who slumber, arise. Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator. Those who forget the truth in the vanities of time and throughout the entire year, devote their energies to vanity and emptiness which will not benefit or save: Look to your souls. Improve your ways and your deeds and let every one of you abandon his evil path and thoughts.”

In contemporary terms, the Shofar is the ring of our alarm clock or smartphone notification ringtone. What happens when the alarm clock rings in the morning? Either you wake up or you press snooze. If you press snooze, it rings again 9 minutes later. Rinse, lather, repeat. It’s possible (and for many people, probable) that you can continue pressing snooze every 9 minutes for a long time. (Trust me, I know from personal experience.)

The same is true for Elul and the shofar. We can hear the blast of the Shofar and press snooze on our convictions to improve and get closer to Hashem. In fact we can go through the whole month of Elul pressing snooze with the intention of “waking up” in 9 minutes, only to find that the month has slipped away and we are face to face with Rosh Hashanah without the slightest shift in a positive direction. So don’t snooze through Elul. Wake up and get the early bird special on Teshuvah, while it is hot and fresh.

May we all be inscribed and sealed for a happy, healthy, prosperous and meaningful new year of 5779.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

Complex Carbohydrates

One of the core philosophical principles of Chassidic thought is the Baal Shem Tov’s notion that the universe requires constant and ongoing creation in order to exist. Since the universe is “creatio ex-nihilo” (something from nothing), which is an “unnatural” state of being, ongoing creation is an imperative. He takes it a step further in that each act of creation is anew, meaning that it is as if the world is being brought into being for the first time. There is nothing compelling the existence of the universe, but for the continuous new infusion of creative force from the Creator. As such, there need not necessarily be a continuity between the world as it existed a moment ago to the world as it exists in the current moment. It is just the kindness of the creator that allows the new creation of the universe every moment to come along with history, thereby giving our lives within that continuum a sense of retention. A symptom of that perceived continuity is that the universe does not recognize itself as being constantly created. Rather it sees itself as having existed for as long as its “history” remembers.

There are phenomena in the universe that serve to remind of the true nature of its existence. One such example is the Manna that fell for the Jews in the wilderness. The parsha describes the Manna as imposing hunger and affliction. What was so afflictive about having your meals delivered to your doorstep fresh and delicious for free?

There are two elements within the Manna that were very strange. The first is that it had to come each day anew. Every morning fresh Manna fell and was collected. So much so, that when they didn’t consume it entirely, by the next morning, yesterday’s Manna was completely rotten and inedible. Part of the Manna experience was that it had to be experienced anew each day. The second element is, that while each portion of Manna looked the same, the taste could be whatever a person imagined (with a few exceptions). These elements were simultaneously the cause of the affliction as well as wondrous reminders of faith in the Creator.

A person who is eating his last morsel of food without having a plan for the next meal, cannot truly be sated. The worry about from where the next crust of bread will come, leaves him feeling empty even while the current meal is filling. With the Manna, each day required an act of faith to finish off the food without having the food in the pantry for tomorrow.

Furthermore, the sense of sight is a central component of the gastronomic experience. The inability to see what you are eating leaves you somewhat unsatisfied. With the Manna, the inability to see what you were tasting, even though it had the potential for a broad range of flavors, left you somewhat wanting.

Both of these elements are indicative of the Manna being of an ethereal nature. The falling of the Manna each day anew is a hint of the world’s true existence – the dependency on ongoing renewal of creation. The capacity for diverse flavors despite the Manna’s plain appearance, is reflective of it not being limited to the finite properties of physical existence. An entity that is recreated every moment is not limited to tasting the way it did a day ago or even a minute ago.

When we recite grace after meals – Birkat Hamazon, we use the very text that Moses composed for recitation after a meal of Manna. We are meant to contemplate, that although our food appears more predictable, it is inherently the same blessing from above as the Manna. It should help us recall our absolute ongoing dependency on Hashem for every aspect of life down to the very existence of life and the universe itself.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

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