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Obsessed with Jews

Disclaimer: This is not a political commentary.

This week I read two news stories (among many) that struck me as absurd. It seems the world has gone “meshuga.”

One was an article that reported on a certain member of the US Senate accusing Israel of creating “the worst humanitarian disaster in modern history.” Not sure how he defines modern history, but I can think of a few disasters that he may want to consider. The Holocaust, Soviet oppression, oppression by China, North Korea, Cambodia, the massacres in Rwanda, Darfur, and Syria, just to name a few.

The second article quoted a Hamas spokesperson complaining to Reuters about the ICC prosecutor seeking arrest warrants for both Israeli and Hamas leaders. He objected on the grounds that the warrant, “equates the victim with the executioner.” He is absolutely correct in a technical sense, just not in the way he intends it.

Why is the world so obsessed with this conflict? Why are so many who are usually dispassionate when it comes to other conflicts and crises, suddenly up in arms regarding Israel. We did not see this degree of obsession against Hamas following the attack on October 7. A million deaths and a refugee crisis in Syria; the world is silent. 800,000 dead in Rwanda; crickets. Uyghurs are being slaughtered in China; nobody gives a hoot. Etc., etc., etc.!

The are less UN resolutions addressing all those conflicts combined than the ones calling out Israel.

We cannot say that it is about the Palestinians, because nobody says boo when they are mistreated by Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and other Arab countries. In fact, Egypt has a solution to protecting civilian lives in Gaza, but hardly a peep at their sealed checkpoint.

So, it must be an obsession with Jews. Only when Jews are involved in the conflict does it become a big deal. It appears that the world puts us on a pedestal and wants to hold us to a different standard. (This does not mean that I in any way agree with their misguided conclusions about the current conflict in Gaza.)

What’s the deal? What are we to make of it? What are we to do about it?

3,336 years ago, we stood at the foot of a mountain somewhere between Egypt and the Promised Land. G-d announced to us for all to hear “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Maybe we need to take a page from the antisemitic playbook of obsession with Jews. Let’s get obsessed with who we need to be as a “Kingdom of Priests” and a “Holy Nation.” Have we been trying too hard to assimilate? Have we been sufficiently focused on the role that G-d has conferred upon us to be “a light unto the nations;” a role model of morality and holiness? When we try to escape our identity, we get reminded in the least preferable manner. We can either garner obsessive respect or obsessive hate and resentment. We ultimately determine whether Jew is a designation of admiration or a title of scorn.

The anniversary of that declaration by G-d at Sinai is coming up in a few weeks. We must embrace our status as a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.” Royalty has standards. Holiness has structured parameters. Just Jew It!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Education: Indoctrination or Empowerment?

The opening verse of this week’s Parsha has G-d telling Moses, “Speak to the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them.” It then goes on to give the admonition to the Kohanim to avoid ritual impurity associated with a corpse. Rashi cites the sages to explain the double expression, “speak to the Kohanim and say to them,” that this is to instruct the adults that they must educate the minors about this principle.

What can you teach a three-year-old Kohen about ritual impurity? He does not understand the underlying reasons for this command. He can merely be taught that “the boys in our family don’t engage in these behaviors.” As he gets older and learns to appreciate his special status, he can begin to understand why he must behave in this way.

There is a school of thought that maintains that giving a child religious instruction is indoctrination. Rather, they argue, wait until the child grows up and he or she can choose on their own whether they wish to pursue this religious doctrine and discipline.

Personally, I believe that this could not be further from the truth. Parents that neglect to share values with their child, especially religious values, are putting their child at a moral and behavioral disadvantage. Instead, I view an education based on Jewish values and morals as empowerment of the child. We are teaching them behaviors and values that will establish them in good stead for life. Would those parents say the same about teaching their child how to put on their shoes, or with regards to toilet training? If we believe that Jewish values are imperative for ourselves and our families, we must begin imparting them even at the earliest age by way of behaviors.

Yesterday I decided to demonstrate this by experimenting with three of my children. My two-and-a-half-year-old asked me for some water. I said to him, “What do we say before drinking the water?” He rattled off the blessing that we have been training him to say. Did he understand why he must say the blessing or what it means? Not at all. He just knows that this is what we do.

Later in the day, I was talking to my five-year-old and I asked him, “Why do we make a bracha (blessing) before eating or drinking?” He replied, "To put another brick on the Beit Hamikdash.” (To help bring the Redemption.) I asked, “But why do we have to specifically make a bracha before we eat or drink?” He said, “Because it is a Mitzvah.” I replied, “Why is making a bracha before eating a Mitzvah”? He answered, “Because Hashem said so.” I asked, “Why does Hashem tell us to make a bracha before eating?” He said, “Tell me.” So, I explained, “Before we enjoy things that Hashem created for us, we are supposed to thank Him for giving them to us.” He was happy to learn and understand.

An hour later, my seven-year-old asked me to help her get some water. I asked her, “Why do we make a bracha (blessing) before eating or drinking?” She replied without hesitation, “Before we enjoy things that Hashem created for us, we are supposed to thank Him for giving them to us.”

We see empowerment developing within these children. They relate to the value at an age-appropriate level. The two-year-old knows the behavior. The five-year-old has a vague idea of the value behind it but has not fully grasped it. The seven-year-old has it down pat.

I often hear from guests at our Shabbat table, how impressed they are with our children’s knowledge of the Parsha and Judaism in general. They feel like these 5 or 7 or 9 year olds are more advanced than they are. I explain that this is not an indication of their intelligence (though I think they are all brilliant, thank G-d…), it is an indication of the early start they have been given on absorbing these behaviors, values, and ideas.

Our enemies have always known that “if there are no kids, there will be no goats.” It is time that we learned this lesson and ascribe the highest priority to educating our children in the values and behaviors of Judaism, thereby ensuring successful Jewish continuity.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Is Judaism Too Intrusive?

Did you know that there are 51 mitzvot in this week’s Parsha. They address areas of life such as eating, marriage, business, agriculture, social responsibilities, body care, family dynamics, interpersonal relationships, and much more. And that’s just 51 of the 613 total number of Mitzvot in the Torah.

There are different ways of viewing this phenomenon. It might seem like Halacha - Jewish law is a little too intrusive. It could appear that religion is being used to control the masses. Why does it matter what I eat? Why does it matter what I do in the privacy of my home? How can the method for tying my shoelaces be of interest to G-d? As long as I am a good person and don’t harm anyone else, why should G-d care about my personal choices?

Looking at it from a different perspective… G-d created us and the world around us and knows exactly what is needed to live an optimal life. Do we question the user’s manual of a car when we are told to use unleaded fuel only? Would someone say, “even though General Motors tells me that leaded fuel is harmful for my car… my car, my choice?” Do we call the doctor intrusive when we are advised of lifestyle choices to improve our quality of life? Would an astronaut question any of the strict requirements involved in space travel? Would we rip the label off the mattress despite the stern warning that doing so is illegal? (Ok, maybe not that one.)

Furthermore, as the name of our Parsha (Kedoshim) indicates, G-d is providing us with a “holiness doctrine.” If you want to live a holy life that is G-dlike, these are the instructions for accomplishing your goal. When we are talking about G-dly living, there is nothing that is superfluous or arbitrary. Every movement that I make, every word that I utter, every thought that I consider, has a role in this life of holiness. As such, rather than feeling intruded upon by all these Mitzvot and laws, I feel privileged that G-d cares so much about me that He shared with me what it means to live G-dly.  

So Halacha – Jewish law is a guidebook for living 24/7/365. There is Halachic input for every single aspect of life. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in life that is not governed by Torah’s illuminated, life-giving path of truth.  

If you are intrigued by this idea and would like to learn more about it, a four-part series on how Halacha informs difficult medical decisions is beginning this coming week. Decisions of Fate, our JLI spring course launches this Wednesday. Feel free to try out the first class on Wednesday night at 7 pm, no commitment required. If you would like to register for the course, go to www.chabadneworleans.com/jli. We are also offering a Thursday lunchtime class downtown at the offices of Egenberg Trial Lawyers. This course offers both CME and CLE credits. Chabad of Metairie is offering this course on Tuesdays. For more information, www.jewishlouisiana.com/jli.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

We can’t just kvetch, we must also sing!

It was a strange Pesach dynamic that we just finished this week. Against the backdrop of the hostages, the war in Israel, the assaults against Jews around the world, including in American “Institutions of Higher Learning,” and the cacophony of condemnation of Jews and Israel for daring to engage in self-defense, celebrating a festival of freedom seemed to be a stretch. As one Israel meme put it, “The Chag is not “sameach” and the Seder is not “beseder.”

On the other hand, we are a nation that celebrates our intrinsic freedom at the soul level for millennia, including under the most challenging of circumstances. Furthermore, the miracles of G-d’s protection throughout this war abound.  

So, we celebrated Pesach. We sat at the Seder. We ate the Shmurah Matzah and drink four cups of wine. We recited the passages in the Haggadah. The question is, did we do more kvetching or more singing? When we read V’hi She’amdah, reciting “in every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand!” did we emphasize the first half of the sentence, or did we emphasize the second half?

On one hand, we should be wringing our hands over the vicious and vacuous protests that are taking place on college campuses around the country. (Tangent: It is high time for a serious conversation on the value our society ascribes to the “college experience.” If this is what our universities are producing, we may want to rethink the trillions invested. Instead of teaching young people how to be thinking and productive members of society, they are turned into mindless zombies, blindly following the social mores du jour, even when those values are immoral and destabilizing.)

On the other hand, have we talked enough about the amazing miracles that took place in response to Iranian attack. Each of the weapons they launched was capable of wreaking mass casualties and destruction. That every component of the missile defense system, including the assistance of the “friendly” neighboring countries, should go off without a hitch, is a miracle of the highest order. Experts in the field have observed that even 90% success would have been off the charts. Imagine the destruction that could have been caused by the remaining 10%. To quote the “paper of record” in 1967, “It is a miracle of Biblical proportions.”

We must not let our guard down, and we must valiantly triumph against the scourge of antisemitism. We must do everything within our power to win the war and bring the hostages home. We must also project positivity and remain focused on praising G-d for the miracles that He does for us.

We can’t just kvetch, we must also sing!

Earlier this week Mrs. Rosina Slater passed away. She was a holocaust survivor who lived in Israel for years and then moved to New Orleans, where she was a successful businesswoman for decades. Rosina did not have children. In 2018 she made a very significant gift to Torah Academy to ensure that Jewish children in New Orleans would have a place to receive an education based on Torah values. The school is now known as Slater Torah Academy. The students and alumni knew her as Bubby Rosina.

The Baal Shem Tov once instructed a childless couple to invest in the education of their Jewish community, quoting this verse from Isaiah 56:5, “I will give them in My house and in My walls “yad vashem” (commemoration), better than sons and daughters; an everlasting name I will give him, which will not be discontinued.”

Through the sweet sounds of children learning Torah in New Orleans, the memory of Rosina (Raizel bat Shlomo) will endure as a blessing in our community.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin    

Who Wouldn't Want Matzah?

A philanthropist once asked the Rebbe for guidance stating that he wished to fund a “major project” and he wanted the Rebbe’s advice as to which project to get behind. He assumed the Rebbe would direct him to a building project or major new undertaking that Chabad was initiating. The Rebbe’s reply was “if you wish to get involved in a “major project” then fund the distribution of Shmurah Matzah before Pesach.

Today is the Rebbe’s birthday. Chabad of Louisiana and our affiliates around the state are very proud to gift to the Rebbe that in Louisiana nearly 2,000 Jewish households received Shmurah Matzah. Teams of volunteers assisted the Shluchim of New Orleans, Metairie, and Baton Rouge in this effort. May everyone who was involved in this project be blessed knowing that the Rebbe considers this a “major project.”

The vast majority of recipients responded positively when the volunteers arrived at their homes. We hope that these packages of Shmurah Matzah will grace the Seder tables of Jewish households throughout the state. We did encounter the sad image of enemy flags flying in front of several households in our community. The juxtaposition of that symbol flying alongside a Mezuzah, with a box of Shmurah Matzah on the doorstep, may just be one of the stranger images of this season.

We also encountered some Jews who have gotten involved in other religions. That is a painful thought, especially at this time of year, when our ancestors were killed and persecuted during blood libels while being falsely accused by some members of those same faiths.

The Zohar says that Matzah is Food of Faith and Food of Healing. May Hashem bring healing and faith to all those who have “wandered off” in one direction or another.

The most curious reaction was from those who declined the packages of Matzah. While most were polite and friendly, we did get some harsh responses. One individual was particularly angry in their reaction. When I inquired as to the reason for the antipathy, the individual replied that “when the Witnesses or the Latter Day Saints come to the door I can ignore them or tell them I am not interested. But when Chabad comes, that means somebody is assuming what I should believe and what I should be doing and trying to impose their practices on me.”

I actually found that fascinating. If this individual really didn’t care they would just ignore the delivery like they do when the other groups come. For some reason the delivery of Jewish paraphernalia touched them deeply enough to be upset by it. Perhaps the Neshama doesn’t allow them to just blow it off. Either you embrace or reject, you cannot just be apathetic or dispassionate about something Jewish.

May the day come when all Jews are passionately embracing of their Yiddishkeit, infused with faith, joy, and meaning.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin     

A Dayenu Introspective

One of the more joyous moments of the Seder is singing Dayenu, during which we express our profound gratitude for 15 acts of kindness that G-d showed us in association with the Exodus.

They are: He has brought us out of Egypt, and carried out judgments against them, and against their idols, and smote their first-born, and gave us their wealth, and split the sea for us, and took us through it on dry land, and drowned our oppressors in it, and supplied our needs in the desert for forty years, and fed us the manna, and gave us the Shabbat, and brought us before Mount Sinai, and gave us the Torah, and brought us into the land of Israel and built for us the Holy Temple.

The Maharal (R’ Yehuda Lowe of Prague) in his commentary to the Haggadah points out that the 15 clauses of Dayenu can be categorized into three themes. The first five, that are directly connected to the Exodus, are about our becoming a nation, Am Yisrael.

The second five are about the miracles that G-d performed for us during our 40 years journey through the wilderness. They demonstrate that we are not a people subject to the laws of nature, rather we are a miraculous nation.

The third set of five are about the spiritual gifts that G-d gave us, allowing us to have a relationship with Him. These convey that our nation, which is supernatural, has a purpose.

To sum it up it would be 1. That we are. 2. How we are. 3. Why we are.

The Passover Seder is not merely about historical reminiscence. Rather, we are meant to internalize the meaning of all that we recall and apply them in our contemporary lives.

As we sing Dayenu this year, let us recall that we are a nation, Am Yisrael. We are one people, and we need to be united with each other in harmony. We are a miraculous people. We have survived 3,500 years of repeated attempts at annihilation. (Can anyone spell genocide?) We are here to tell the story, while our oppressors have been relegated to the ash-heap of history. We will survive this current attempt as well because “Am Yisrael Chai.” We must also remember that our peoplehood, and our miraculous survival and thriving, must be infused with purpose. Those gifts which were given by G-d to our ancestors, the Shabbat, Revelation, the Torah, the Land of Israel, and the worship of the Holy Temple, are what make our lives meaningful and purposeful. By remaining loyal to these unique gifts, we can serve as a source of light and inspiration to the whole world.

For this we are eternally grateful, and we declare, Dayenu!

To sell your chametz, please go to www.chabadneworleans.com/chametz.

For general Passover information, including Seder how to and recipes, www.chabadneworleans.com/passover.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Cheer For Our Young Experts

Is there something in which you have expertise? Is there a subject or an intellectual discipline that you have completed? I want to share with you about an expertise being developed by 10 children in our community.

First some background. 40 years ago, the Rebbe launched an initiative encouraging people to engage in daily study of the Halachic works of Maimonides. The advanced track would encompass the Rambam’s 14 volume Mishna Torah – code of Jewish law. The beginners track would encompass the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot – Explanation of the 613 Mitzvot in the Torah. The beginner’s track was encouraged even for school aged children.

Ever since then, tens of thousands of Jewish children around the world have followed the daily study program of Sefer HaMitzvot, which is completed each year. Some years ago, Tzivos Hashem, the organization the Rebbe founded for Jewish children, established a Chidon – competition for children in Sefer HaMitzvot. The book was divided into 5 sections. Children in grades 4-8 were allowed to enter the competition, with one of the five sections assigned to each of the five grades. A child that completes all five years of the competition will have mastered all 613 Mitzvot as taught by the Rambam. Tests are administered and prizes are awarded based on achievement. There is an annual gathering and celebration that includes a Mitzvot game show for the top achievers each year. Eighth graders are given the lagniappe option of being tested on all 613 Mitzvot as a whole, in addition to section 5 that is for their grade.

Our New Orleans Jewish community was well represented this year. 10 Slater Torah Academy students successfully competed in this year’s Chidon and just wrapped up their trip to New York for the celebration. Two elementary school girls and eight boys are well on their way to becoming experts in the 613 Mitzvot. Our community should take pride in their monumental accomplishments. We wish them Mazal Tov. May they serve as an inspiration to the adults in our community to commit ourselves to a greater degree of Torah study, especially the Halachic works of Maimonides. For more information on the daily study go to www.chabadneworleans.com/rambam.

We welcome new team members to Chabad of Louisiana. Rabbi Yisroel and Chaya (nee Rivkin) Slonim have moved to town to join the staff of Chabad Tulane Grads/Alumni and Young Professionals. They will work under the direction of her parents, Rabbi Yochanan and Sarah Rivkin. We wish them much success in all of their endeavors.

Over the next two weeks Chabad of Louisiana will venture to distribute a Shmura Matzah package to every Jewish home in Orleans Parish. If you know of someone that may not be on our list who would appreciate a Matzah package, please let us know. Chabad of Metairie will be distributing packages in Jefferson Parish. We will also be branching out to surrounding parishes, including the Northshore. If you would like to support this project, please go to www.chabadneworleans.com/donate. If you would like to volunteer with delivery, please let us know. Thank you in advance!

We acknowledge the passing of legendary former senator Joe Lieberman. A tribute can be read at www.chabadneworleans.com/6382074.

For this year’s Sale of Chametz form, www.chabadneworleans.com/chametz.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

They Are Not Entitled to Their Own Facts

There is a quote attributed to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” This week I read two op-eds about Purim and the war in Gaza. Each of them, in my opinion, is guilty of the entitlement to their own facts. 

One op-ed expresses a discomfort with the extent of “unjustified” killing at the end of the story resulting in the deaths of 75,800 citizens of the Persian Empire. Esther appeals to the king to avoid calls for a cease-fire, resulting in the killing of the last 300 people in Shushan on the second day of fighting. The author then goes on about how this applies to the war in Gaza.

(I can just imagine the 21st century style media reports of that event. “The Aggagite health ministry reports 75,800 deaths, mostly women and children. This is a disproportionate response, when on the Jewish side not a single death is reported.”) 

The second op-ed expresses a discomfort with the enactment of a jubilant celebration following the killing of said enemies. The author then goes on to invoke one the most oft misappropriated Midrashic teachings, that when the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea, G-d rebuked the angels for singing praise for their destruction saying, “My handiwork is drowning in the sea, and you are singing praise?” This Midrash, says the author, is a Rabbinic criticism of Moses and the people of Israel for rejoicing over their enemies’ destruction. While this op-ed is more nuanced in opining that the Jews of the Persian empire practiced self-restraint, it is still critical of the celebration that followed. The author then goes on to compare it to the war in Gaza.

The comparison of the three instances (Egypt, Persia, Hamas) is apt in that they demonstrate the degree of senseless hatred toward the Jewish people, resulting in fruitless attempts to destroy us.

The Egyptians had just been decimated by the 10 plagues. Yet, they somehow thought it was a good idea to chase the Israelites. What were they thinking? Did they really believe that the G-d Who wrought the plagues upon them would be caught napping at the Red Sea? Yet their hatred for the Israelites overpowered their common sense.

The Persian loyalists to Haman, should have known that they were destined for destruction after seeing what happened to their leader, Haman, and how the king gave the Jews permission to defend themselves. Yet they persisted in taking up arms against the Jews on the day designated by Haman months earlier, because their hatred for the Jews overpowered their common sense.

Hamas knew that they were waking a sleeping giant with the October 7 attack. Yet their hatred for the Jews outweighs their concern for their own people, as is evidenced by their endemic use of civilian shields.

In reality, the Purim story is an excellent lesson on how to deal with those who wish to harm us. The 75,800 casualties were Haman loyalists who were determined to attack the Jews come what may and were killed in an act of self-defense. Had they not been eliminated; they would keep coming back to attack over and over again. Considering that the Persian Empire had 127 provinces, spanning from India to Africa, 75,800 casualties is a small number. It represented only those combatants who took up arms against the Jews. Even those last 300 in Shushan were of that ilk, which is why they needed to be eliminated. Copy and paste to Gaza.

With respect to the Midrashic criticism of singing praise over the destruction of the enemy applying to Moses and the Jewish people, nothing could be further from the truth. The Song of the Sea that the Israelites sang that day, serves as a central part of our daily prayers, and is read in the Torah every year on the anniversary of the event, the seventh of Passover. The Israelites, and for the matter the Jews of Persia, were not celebrating the downfall of their enemies, but rather the elimination of the threat against them through G-d’s salvation. Copy and paste to Gaza.

We hold ourselves to a higher standard, as we should. But that should not be allowed to evolve into “alternative facts” influencing the critical decision making process.

May G-d bless and protect us all and put an end to this threat against our people, thereby eliminating the potential of any further unnecessary civilian deaths. May He Who makes peace on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel, and let us say Amen.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Is It Appropriate To Rejoice This Purim?

This year Purim presents a major dilemma; are we allowed to rejoice and be happy considering the circumstances in Israel? How can we celebrate knowing that hostages are being held in Gaza? How can we be happy when thousands of our brothers and sisters are putting their lives on the line in combat to defend Jewish life? How can we rejoice while 100,000 thousand Israeli households are in a state of evacuation?

On the other hand, can we afford not to rejoice and celebrate? Can the world stand for a reduction in positivity that is produced by our Purim joy? In fact, one could argue that we must rejoice twice as much to make up for those hostages, combat soldiers, and evacuees that may not be able to celebrate this year in the way they are accustomed.

Perhaps we could distinguish between frivolity and joy driven by holiness and substance. My senior colleague, Dr. David Kaufmann OBM would encourage college students to come to Chabad for holidays so they could “party for the heaven of it” rather than for the “...of it.”

How indeed do we party for the heaven of it? One of the Chassidic life hacks for this issue is called a Farbrengen. A farbrengen consists of a joyous camaraderie infused with caring and inspiration. It is a coming together of souls to share in each other’s joy and striving for a better life. Loving and uplifting words are imparted in an atmosphere of brotherhood, accompanied by melodies that can lift the feet or cause the heart to soar.

A central feature of a Chassidic Purim is a Farbrengen. This year more than ever, we need to lean in and access these opportunities for elevated rejoicing. Purim 2024 with Chabad will offer ample opportunities for Farbrengens. Beginning with Saturday night after the Megillah reading. Continuing with a Sunday morning breakfast Farbrengen. Finally, Purim in the Circus at Slater Torah Academy will round out this very important Purim celebration.

I encourage you to join one or all of these events and party for the heaven of it this Purim. We look forward to celebrating with you!

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

A 2,400 Year Old Response to October 7

On October 7 an enemy of the Jewish people set out to “to annihilate, murder and destroy all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on one day.” They took the lives of over 1,200 of our people that day. They have stated in no uncertain terms, that their intent is “that every day should be October 7 for the Jews” until they are all gone.

How do we respond to this unabashed declaration of intent to make the world “judenrein” (to quote another historical “friend of our people”)?

As “people of the book” we look to the Torah for the answers to life’s questions. After all, Torah means instruction, and Torah is called the Torah of life, light, and truth.

Let us examine an earlier similar instance in our history. The book of Esther relates that 2,400 years ago a sworn enemy of the Jewish people named Haman attempted to implement a “final solution” against us. What was his thinking? What made the Jews vulnerable to his hateful intent at annihilation?

Here is how Haman presented his request to King Achashverosh of Persia. “There is one nation dispersed and divided among the nations throughout the provinces of your kingdom, whose laws are unlike those of any other nation and who do not obey the laws of the King. It is not in the King's interest to tolerate them.”

On one hand they are “one nation,” a singular people who reflect the Oneness of the Al-mighty. On the other hand, they are divided, they lack unity. In addition, “they do not obey the laws of the King (Hashem).” Haman observed how many Jews gleefully participated in the King’s feast, gorging themselves with non-Kosher food and wine, just happy to gain acceptance in Persian society. He figured this would make them susceptible to his schemes.

What was the Jewish response to Haman? One would think that they would immediately mobilize the “powerful Jewish lobby” flinging “Benjamins” all over the place to thwart the evil decree. Instead, we find an entirely different set of priorities determining the Jewish response. Only after these priorities were addressed did the Jewish people access their “protektzia” in the form of Queen Esther.

These priorities were expressed in four ways.

The first was by Mordechai. “But Mordechai would not kneel or bow.” Mordechai demonstrated that a Jew does not give in to the arbitrary immoral demands of an enemy. He stood strong for his beliefs and principles.

The second was by Queen Esther. “Go and gather all the Jews who are in Shushan and fast for my sake, do not eat and do not drink for three days, night and day. My maids and I shall also fast in the same way. Then I shall go to the king, though it is unlawful, and if I perish, I perish.” If you are trying to utilize your beauty to convince the king about something, a three day fast is not the smartest beauty hack. Yet, Esther knew that the key to salvation is a spiritual one, and only then will the “powerful Jewish lobby” be successful.

The third was the by Jewish people. Although a decree of annihilation hung over them for nearly a year, not a single Jew in the Persian empire considered disassociating themselves from the Jewish people to save their own skin. They stood with a fortitude of self-sacrifice for the sake of their Jewish identities.

The fourth was by the Jewish children. The Midrash teaches that Mordechai gathered twenty-two thousand Jewish children, prayed with them and taught them Torah. Suddenly, Haman arrived and threatened to harm the children. The children declared, “We shall stay with Mordechai, no matter what!”

There is nothing new in 2024. Rinse, lather, repeat.
Principled stand.
Spiritual strengthening.
Devotion and Self-Sacrifice.
Jewish Education.
The only difference is that we hope for a salvation this time that is permanent with the coming of Mashiach and the final Redemption.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Take Care of Number One!

One of the most challenging ethical dilemmas that we face is: What do we do when helping others comes at the expense of our own spiritual benefit? How do we prioritize our own wellbeing vs. our obligation to help others?

The Zohar relates a curious anecdote, that upon deeper analysis, provides us with the solution to this dilemma.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was expounding on the secrets of Kabbalah when he noticed Rabbi Yosi, a member of his inner circle of mystics, distracted and tuned out. Rabbi Shimon sensed that Rabbi Yosi was “pondering worldly affairs” and made the following observation. “(Since you have turned your mind away from contemplating Torah to thinking about worldly affairs,) your visage is incomplete and there is a letter missing from your name.” Rabbi Yosi refocused and turned back to the mystical secrets, upon which Rabbi Shimon commented, “(Now that you are back to the mysteries of the Torah) your visage is whole and your name is complete.”

What worldly affairs could a sage such as Rabbi Yosi possibly be pondering? He wasn’t playing the stock market or worrying about the price of oil. The Rebbe explains that he was thinking about a communal matter for which he was responsible. Although helping others is a worthy cause, nevertheless, his Torah study was being neglected and was lacking. To the extent that his spiritual countenance (his visage) was diminished.

The question is, how could “his visage become whole and his name complete,” when he missed out on the time of his study due to his communal commitment? Even if we accept the capacity to improve moving forward, there is still something missing from the past. About this the Rebbe suggests, that when one puts one’s own spiritual benefit aside for the sake of helping others, Hashem blesses his own spiritual endeavors to multiply exponentially. So, while in the moment it is a “diminishment,” as soon as you refocus, you will be made retroactively whole through Hashem’s blessings.

The Rebbe asked a man who was embarking on a charitable enterprise, “Why did G-d create the heart on the left side of the body?” In Kabbalah, the right side represents chesed - kindness, so the heart would be more suitably situated on the right side. The Rebbe replied, “since a person should always be thinking about how they can help another person, the heart is to the right of the person one is facing, rather than on one’s own right.  

Indeed, Hayom Yom quotes an early Chassidic adage, “Love a fellow-Jew and G‑d will love you; do a kindness for a fellow-Jew and G‑d will do a kindness for you; befriend a fellow-Jew and G‑d will befriend you.

So, take care of number one, and Hashem will take care of you!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

A Knotty Issue

This past Monday, Malkie and I had the privilege of participating in the Bris of our grandson, Mordechai, born to Mushka and Yossi Cohen. A family Simcha is always wonderful. This was particularly meaningful for me as this baby was named for my grandfather, Reb Mordechai Rivkin, OBM who passed away nearly 16 years ago. Having left home to attend school in New York at the age of 11, I spent a lot of time in my grandparents’ home. I became exceedingly close to my grandparents, who were almost like surrogate parents to me when I was living far from home. I lived in close proximity to them for 14 years, and during that time I spent countless hours in the company of, and in conversation with my grandfather. I can say without hesitation that he was one of the greatest influences on my life and he played a significant role in molding me into the person that I am. We proudly named our son after him 15 years ago. To now have a grandson who bears his name is very moving.

There is an old common practice of tying a knot to remember something. What are the origins of this practice? Does it have any value?

There is a fascinating passage in the Zohar on this week’s Parsha that mentions two sages who would tie knots to remember their studies. The connection to the Parsha is that following the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe prays to G-d for favor and when it is granted, he asks G-d that He show him (Moshe) His glory. To which G-d replies “you shall see My back, but My face you will not see.” Upon this Rashi cites a passage from the Talmud, “G-d showed Moshe the “knot of His head Tefillin.” Obviously, this is all anthropomorphic. G-d does not have any form. Face, back, neck, and knot of the Tefillin are all metaphors for varying Divine manifestations. Yet the metaphor is employed because there is something to be garnered from that connection.

What’s up with the knot? A knot is a connecting point that, when formed, actually serves to bring the two ends closer. When we speak of the connection between Hashem and the Jewish people, a knot features prominently in two Mitzvahs, Tefillin (which is knotted on the bicep and at the nape of the neck – see above), and Tzitzit, the fringes that hang off the corners of a Talit or Talit Katan. (Last week someone asked me to explain the “cat-o-nine-tails” sticking out of my pants pocket.) Each of the four corners has a series of five knots and eight strings.

The common denominator is that each of these Mitzvahs is connected to remembrance. Concerning the Tefillin is states in Exodus (13:9), “They shall be a remembrance between your eyes.” Regarding the Tzitzit is states in Numbers (15:39), “This shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the L-rd.”

When Moshe was trying to invoke G-d’s mercy following the Golden Calf it was expressed by way of a knot, which repairs a breach and brings the two ends closer. The Mitzvahs that are connected to knots, serve to remind us of our commitment and closeness to Hashem. By remembering and acting upon our special connection, we will merit the Redemption through Mashiach speedily.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel RIvkin

Manpower or G-d-power?

This message comes to you from the quaint New England town of Suffield, CT, a town now filled with the sounds of Torah learning since the establishment of a Chabad Yeshiva in Suffield last year. My son Murdechai is a student here. This weekend I have the pleasure of spending Shabbat at the Yeshiva along with other fathers and relatives of the boys.

Earlier this week we had the privilege of hosting IDF Lt. Col (res) Yaron Buskila at Chabad of Louisiana. As one who was on the ground in and around Gaza on October 7, his account was both mesmerizing and shocking. There were moments of horror and moments of heroism. His message was From Crisis to Victory. After describing the extreme circumstances in the aftermath of the terror attack, he then began to lay out the hope for victory. He expressed how uplifted he was when he saw the endless convoy of vehicles carrying soldiers who took the initiative and headed towards the crisis in the 48 hours following the attack. He articulated how the country had become united in purpose. He articulated how valuable the outpouring of support from Jews worldwide is for those fighting on the ground. He shared how, in contrast to the hate graffiti that was scribbled on the walls of the Jewish homes in the villages around Gaza, he and the soldiers under his command taped messages of hope for peace written by Israeli children to the walls of Gazan homes. He took some tough questions and was not afraid to address some of the difficult issues.

I would like to share one message that he conveyed through a personal anecdote. While still on active duty, he was a commander for a special ops unit that dealt with terror threats in Judea and Samaria. They received word of shots being fired at a town. The unit advanced to the town and, based on the intelligence that they had, they proceeded towards the edge of town near a factory on the outskirts of the town from which they presumed the shots were fired. They advanced and started shooting, only to discover that the terrorists were behind them. He was shot and wounded. After a harrowing attempt to crawl on his elbows towards the home from where the shots were fired, he arrived to find that a mother and daughter were killed in the attack. The husband was crying and blurted out “you were not in time.” Yaron was taken by helicopter to the hospital to undergo surgery. He was very down by the botched operation and decided that he was going to get out of the military.

When he regained consciousness following the operation, he opened his eyes to find a Chabad Rabbi sitting near his bed with a guitar playing a song with lyrics from the Torah, “You shall remember the L-rd your G-d, for it is He Who has given you the strength to achieve success.”  This was a Eureka moment for him. He realized that all this time he was relying on his own strength and talent for success. But it is Hashem upon whom we must rely. He resolved to return, energized by this new conviction, which has been his guiding light ever since.

This is a powerful message that pertains to each of us in our lives. When we remember from where our strength is derived, we go with the power of Hashem to achieve success in all good things.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Don't Allow Our Enemies to Define Us!

One of the most identifiable Jewish symbols is a Menorah. Many Jewish institutions incorporate a Menorah into their emblem or seal, including the State of Israel. The origin of the Menorah as a Jewish symbol goes back to the one that was used in the Temple/Tabernacle, which is described in detail in this week’s Parsha. It was made of solid gold with very ornate designs chiseled into the gold.

One of the questions debated is the shape of the Menorah’s branches. Most images that we see depict the Menorah with six rounded branches coming out of the center branch. However, Rashi in his commentary to the Torah states that the branches emerged diagonally from the center. There is also a diagram drawn by the Rambam that depicts the Menorah as having diagonal branches emerging from the center. The Rambam’s son, Rabbi Avraham attests that this was his father’s hand drawn diagram, and that his father was deliberate regarding the shape of the Menorah’s branches.    

There is one major medieval commentator, Ma’aseh Choshev, who argues that according to Kabbalah it would seem that round is a more appropriate shape for the Menorah. He has an alternative way of understanding Rashi’s words. He also did not see the Rambam’s diagram, because he writes that since the Rambam did not comment on the shape, we do not know what his opinion is on the matter. (The manuscript with the diagram was discovered at a much later point. It was on display at the Yeshiva University’s Maimonides exhibit in 2022.) There is also room to understand the Ibn Ezra as opining that the branches were curved. But Rashi and the Rambam maintain that it was diagonal.

So then the question is how did round become the default shape of the Menorah for so long? This can likely be traced to the Arch of Titus. Titus was the Roman general (later Ceasar) who destroyed the second Temple around the year 70 CE. To celebrate his victory the Romans erected an arch on which the embossed images of Roman soldiers carrying away the Temple implements, including the Menorah. The Menorah in that depiction is round. The are several proofs that the Menorah on the arch is “the artist’s renderings” rather than a faithful depiction of reality. The Menorah is missing its three legs. There are images of dragons at the base of the Menorah, certainly not a Jewish symbol. Titus and his father Vespasian also minted commemorative coins with the phrase Judea Capta (Judea has been vanquished) on them. From time to time, the Romans would force the Jewish populace in Rome to walk under the arch as a means of humiliation.

In hindsight we can argue that the rounded Menorah is a symbol of Jewish exile, Judea Capta. It is ironic that Israel, which seeks to pull Jews away from the diaspora, the “galut mentality,” adopted a symbol of Jewish vanquishment and humiliation.

This is one of the reasons that the Rebbe encouraged the use of the “Rambam Menorah” as an emblem or symbol of Jewish institutions. Why should we allow our enemies to define us? Why should we celebrate Judea Capta and be reminded of that constantly?

This mindset of allowing our enemies to define us, has crept into the attitude of Jews towards Israel today. How many times can you hear Apartheid State without starting to wonder whether there is truth to that? How many times can you be told about Nazi-like treatment of Palestinians without starting to be uncomfortable in your own skin. We need to forget about what the “world thinks” and define ourselves. The UN, the EU, the Quartet, and the rest of our enemies do not get to define us. We must be proud of the role Hashem has for us and our place in the Holy Land. Judea will not be Capta! Instead, it is Am Yisrael Chai!

Please join us on Monday night to hear IDF Lt Col. Yaron Buskila share an eyewitness account of October 7 in a talk entitled, “From Crisis to Victory.” To register, www.chabadneworleans.com/victory.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Joy is a Powerful Driver

The first of the four sections of the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) is called Orach Chayim (the Path of Life). It deals with the daily life of a Jew and then proceeds to go through the calendar cycle, with all the special days contained therein.

The very first law authored by the Rama (the Ashkenazi authority who wrote glosses on the Code) begins with a quote from Psalms 16, “I place G‑d before me constantly.” This teaches that from the moment we awaken, the awareness that we are constantly in the presence of the Divine influences how we go about our day.

The last set of laws deals with the month of Adar I (in a Jewish leap year). He instructs us that on Purim Katan (the 14th of Adar I), though it is not the actual day of Purim (which is held in Adar II), nevertheless we should mark the day with a slight increase in celebration. He then concludes with a quote from Proverbs 15, “One who is glad of heart, celebrates constantly.”

The common denominator is the term “constantly” in both verses. Constant awareness of being in Hashem’s presence and constant joy. In Hebrew the word is Tamid. The same term is used to describe the daily offerings in the Temple that we brought on the altar, the first offering each morning and the last offering each afternoon. The two “Tamids” are the bookends of a day in the life of a Jew. Similarly, in Orach Chayim (the Path of Life) the two “Tamids” are the bookends of Jewish life, Reverence for G-d and joy.

The first one makes sense. Constant awareness of being in Hashem’s presence is the driver for all that we are supposed to be about. But joy? Why is joy so integral to Jewish life? Judaism does not view joy (only) as a response to positive circumstances. Rather, Judaism views joy as a generator of positive circumstances. Joy and a positive attitude help shape and mold positive outcomes.

The Talmud states, “When Adar enters, we increase in joy.” This year we have two Adars. That is double the joy. Twice the power to influence and shape positive outcomes. May our collective joy shape the positive outcome for our world, bringing us the blessing of peace and security for our brethren in Israel and the joy of Redemption for the whole world.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov! Be Happy!
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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