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Mitzvahs and Iodine

This past Tuesday, Malkie and I were blessed to celebrate the Bas Mitzvah of our daughter Hinda. We appreciate all of those who participated and sent good wishes. We are touched by the happiness expressed by so many on our behalf.

During the event we showed a video clip produced by our family, called “Where in the world is Hinda?” The concept is that Hinda’s siblings were trying to track her down while she was running around doing Mitzvahs. They were always able to discover her tracks because of the traces of light that were left in her wake resulting from the impact of the Mitzvahs. It had plenty of cute and funny moments, but it was really a deep idea.

Proverbs analogizes Mitzvahs as lights. Every Mitzvah brings a positive energy to the world. The trouble is that this energy or light is not visible to the average person. Only someone who has a heightened spiritual sensitivity can detect the light that stems from a Mitzvah. When Moshiach comes then we will all be given the capacity to see the light and energy that ensued from the Mitzvah.

This is idea is reflected in the world of medical diagnostic technology. As some know, I serve at times as a medical interpreter for Israeli patients that come to Ochsner Medical Center for liver transplants. There are many diagnostic imaging tools that are used in the course of medical evaluations and treatments. At times a contrast medium such as iodine will be administered to the patient before an imaging procedure like a CT scan or MRI. The purpose of the contrast is to improve the quality of the image of the body’s internal structure, highlight certain aspects of the anatomy undergoing the imaging, and possibly even block obstructions. When viewed through the instrumentation of the machine, the contrast appears bright and illuminated, allowing for a better diagnostic picture.

However, trying to view the impact of the contrast without the proper instruments is a worthless endeavor. Not to say that the contrast hasn’t done its job. But we simply can’t appreciate its accomplishments when we lack the tools to view the impact.

So every Mitzvah that we do is like injecting positive spiritual contrast into the universe, which, with proper instrumentation can be seen, and its impact appreciated. One day very soon we will all be given the lenses required to perceive the voluminous effect that Mitzvahs have had in illuminating our world with the Light of Hashem.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Be a Jew in Shushan

The Megillah introduces Mordechai to us in the following manner, “Ish Yehudi – a Jewish man lived in Shushan Habirah - the capital city, whose name was Mordechai….” There are a number of interesting angles on this intro. Firstly, Mordechai was not from the tribe of Judah, yet he is called a Yehudi - Jew (the Megillah is the first time the term Jew is used to describe the nation of Israel as a whole). Also, there is an emphasis on his place of residence, Shushan Habirah. We meet Shushan earlier in the story when it describes King Achashverosh and his feast. We already know that it is the capital of Persia. Why the need to emphasize it again?

Our sages explain the use of the title Yehudi as being associated with one who is firm in his commitment to Hashem and rejects the worship of a foreign deity. Mordechai refused to bow to Haman and his idol thereby earning himself the title Yehudi. He then encourages and persuades the entire Jewish people to remain firm in their commitment to Hashem.

There are degrees of commitment to Hashem. There are those who are willing to be a Yehudi in the Synagogue. They will pray and study and observe Mitzvahs. But when they leave Shul they put the kippah in the pocket, and kiss the Mezuzah and G-d goodbye for a while.

Others are willing to extend the commitment to their homes and Jewish settings. They will keep Kosher and Shabbat. They will recite blessings over food and give Tzedakah. If a Rabbi comes to visit the office they have a kippah ready to wear for the occasion. But when outside among society there is no need to stick out and act differently.

Mordechai was exemplary in that he was a Yehudi even in Shushan Habirah. Shushan was the capital – the place where Persian society was at its strongest. The feast narrative tells us all we need to know about the culture of Shushan. Nevertheless, Mordechai was a proud Yehudi even in Shushan. That is the kind of example he set and the leadership he demonstrated for the Jewish people.

We are all Yehudim now. We are all inspired by the model of Mordechai in our devotion to Hashem. Let’s make sure that we are Yehudim even in Shushan Habirah. We can be proud visible Jews, while being comfortable on the streets of the French Quarter (most of them anyway), in the halls of Capitol Hill in DC, and the highest skyscrapers in Manhattan.

On behalf of all of the Shluchim of Chabad of Louisiana, I wish you a very joyous and meaningful Purim. Please join Chabad at one of the many events listed below.

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Purim is also about anti-Semitism

Purim is also about anti-Semitism. (See www.chabadneworleans.com/blog for last week’s post entitled “Purim is not about anti-Semitism.) Not only that, but even after the Haman threat was eliminated, serious vigilance against the potential flare up of further anti-Semitism was needed. Where is this indicated?

The very last verse of the book of Esther states: “For Mordechai the Jew was viceroy to King Achashverosh, and great among the Jews and accepted by most of his brethren; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all their offspring.” There is a glaring awkwardness in this verse. Why was Mordechai accepted by most of his brethren and not all? What could the detractors possibly find wrong with him? He just saved the entire Jewish people from a “final solution” attempt to “to annihilate, murder and destroy all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on one day.”

The answer is in the earlier part of the verse, “Mordechai the Jew was viceroy to the king.” Some of his colleagues in the Sanhedrin felt that once the decree was averted, Mordechai should have resigned from governmental affairs to exclusively apply himself to Torah. In fact, in a listing of leading sages of the Sanhedrin in the book of Nechemiah, Mordechai is slightly demoted from his place on an earlier list in the book of Ezra.

So why indeed did Mordechai elect to remain an active leading member of the king’s court? In the opening verse of the Megillah it states: “And it came to pass in the days of Achashverosh, the same Achashverosh who ruled… one hundred and twenty-seven provinces.” Why does the verse repeat the name of the king? It could have just said, “In the days of Achashverosh who ruled…” Our sages explain, that the verse is pointing out to us that Achashverosh was also a Jew hater. He was threatened by the prophecy of Jeremiah that G-d would bring the Jews back to Israel after 70 years of exile. The party described in the opening chapter of the story is a celebration of his perception that those 70 years passed and the Jews would be his subjects forever. Indeed later on the story, when Haman offers the king 10,000 silver talents in exchange for permission to destroy the Jews, Achashverosh responds, “The money is yours to keep, and the nation is yours to do with as you please.” Why? Because he was an anti-Semite just like Haman was. Maybe for a more pragmatic reason; but he hated the Jews all the same.

Mordechai reasoned, that a fickle king such as Achashverosh, who displays such narcissistic tendencies, can easily swing right back to his old Jew hating ways if he felt threatened by them. So Mordechai deemed it necessary to remain as viceroy, in order to address any threats that may arise.  

Jews must always be vigilant and take measures to protect ourselves, whilst remaining hyper-cognizant of the fact (as mentioned in last week’s post) that the true source of our protection and well-being, both physical and spiritual, is our connection to Hashem. To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, we must “pray softly and carry a big stick.”  

Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Purim is not about anti-Semitism

Purim is not a holiday about anti-Semitism. Of course Haman was most definitely an anti-Semite. (In fact, he got his career in Jew hatred started as an entry-level government official who was advocating against Persian support for the Jewish people’s right to a homeland in Israel.) Furthermore, he most certainly tried to persecute and destroy the Jewish nation. Finally, his plans were thwarted by the powerful Jewish lobby in the palace (the queen), resulting in his downfall and execution. Following the Jewish victory against Haman’s minions, Mordechai and the sages of Israel established the festival of Purim. So how can we say that Purim is not about anti-Semitism?

Because the story told above is only the mask - the outer layer. Upon closer examination, we discover an entirely different subplot that is far more instructive of how we are to live as Jews.

When Haman issues his decree, Mordechai reacts by wearing sack-cloth and ashes and declaring that Jews must gather in prayer, fasting and Teshuvah. What happened to working the phones and leaning on his connections in the king’s court? What happened to raising money for an effort to get the decree annulled by the king?

When Esther is prevailed upon to go to the king, she prepares by fasting for three days. For a king who spent 4 ½ years looking for the most beautiful woman in the Persian empire to marry, it would not seem to be wisest idea to approach him after a three day fast. Even a very attractive woman doesn’t look great without eating or drinking for 72 hours. It would seem more logical for Esther to spend three days at the spa and shopping for new clothes with which to impress the king.

So what’s the deal? Mordechai and Esther understood that Haman’s decree is merely a symptom of a deeper issue. Namely, the Jewish people falling out of favor with Hashem. This was because of the self-degradation stemming from the Jews wanting so desperately to be accepted by Persian society, that they went to the king’s feast celebrating their own subjugation. They were so thrilled just to be invited to the ball, that they tossed their Yiddishkeit; eating the non-Kosher food, engaging in promiscuity, and fully embracing the pagan Persian culture.

Accordingly, Mordechai’s primary focus was getting the Jews good with Hashem again through prayer and repentance. Once that got squared away, they then employed natural channels to get the decree annulled and the enemy eliminated. Consequently, Purim is a celebration of our reunification with Hashem as His treasured and devoted nation. Haman’s anti-Semitism was just a side-bar.

The takeaway is that every threat to our people must be dealt with using all means available to us. But we must first remember that our primary task is to strengthen our connection to Hashem. Only then can our efforts to neutralize the threats be effective.

Shabbat Shalom and happy Purim prep!
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

Who's Helping Whom?

Who’s giving to whom? The Midrash (Lev. Rabba) states, “More than what the philanthropist does for the poor person, the poor person does for the philanthropist.” The conventional way of understanding this is that the poor person gives the rich person the opportunity to do a Mitzvah. And not just any mitzvah, but the Mitzvah of Tzedakah, which has many special merits as enumerated by our sages all over the Talmud and Midrash.

This week I heard a story that gives a whole new meaning to this concept. We had a visitor at Minyan one morning this week, who shared with me something that happened to him. Several years ago his teenage daughter went into renal failure and she needed a kidney. It was determined that he was a match, and he became a kidney donor for his daughter. With Hashem’s help all went well, and they both recovered nicely.

Fast forward one year. This man is a member of Hatzalah, the volunteer ambulance corps. He was rushing to a call one day, and as he went through an intersection on a red, a bus plowed into the driver's side of his vehicle. He took a rough hit on his side and was badly injured. When Hatzalah rushed him to the emergency room, the doctors were freaking out about the prospect of major damage to his kidney, with the possibility of kidney rupture. He and the Hatzalah members who brought him in were laughing. He explained to the doctors that a year ago he had given that kidney to his daughter and therefore there was no kidney there to worry about.

So while he thought he was helping his daughter by giving her a kidney and saving her life, in fact she relieved him of his kidney thereby saving him from major medical issues.

We don’t always understand Hashem’s ways. But we do know that in the end end end, doing what Hashem’s wants of us is also for our own benefit.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

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