ChabadNewOrleans Blog

Divine Wisdom for Dummies

Do you remember when the “for dummies” series and “the complete idiot’s guide series were all the rage? Like “Windows for Dummies” or “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Calculus.” We are about to celebrate a holiday during which the very first “for dummies” or “the complete idiot’s guide” book was released.

I refer of course to Shavuot, the festival that celebrates the giving of the Torah. Torah is the single greatest gift bestowed upon humanity. There are many facets to the Torah that make it unique and inestimably valuable. To name a few: It furnishes us with the tools for purposeful living. It provides us with the means to connect to Hashem. It offers us insights to human nature along with the wisdom to shape and refine ourselves properly. It supplies us with the implements with which to create a just and ethical society. Torah contains the mysteries of the universe and our Creator. Torah sharpens the mind and heightens the intelligence.

Torah is also “Divine Wisdom for Dummies” and “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to G-dly Living.” An oft used metaphor for Torah is water. Our sages explain that water flows down the mountains to form the springs and streams from which we draw our supply. In a similar sense, Torah originates as Divine Wisdom, which then “flows downward” to become invested into human intelligence, describing physical phenomena and experiences. Just as the water remains the same despite the downward journey, so to Torah retains its essence as Divine Wisdom despite its manifestation as a book about the human condition.

Now Divine Wisdom is, as its name indicates, Divine. That should place it onto a level that renders it out of reach for us finite humans. Yet, somehow when we study Torah, even as it discusses civil law, history or human ethics, we are grasping Divine Wisdom. This marvelous, almost paradoxical, capacity was given to us at Sinai, when Hashem made the Torah accessible to the Jewish people, and through them, to all of humanity. So seize the opportunity that is available to each and every one of us at all times, but especially when we relive the giving of the Torah on Shavuot.

To paraphrase the blessing echoed by the Rebbe each year in anticipation of Shavuot, “May we merit to receive the Torah with joy and inner meaning.”

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

The Great Spring Fair

There is a passage in the Friday night service called V’shamru that is not recited according to the Chabad custom. When R’ Schneur Zalman, the first Chabad Rebbe, reset the prayer book to fit the Chabad custom, he inserted the passage with instructions that it be omitted. Why have it if it is not going to be recited? He explained that his close colleague, R’ Levi Yitzchak of Berdichov, was a strong proponent of reciting this passage saying “that when the Jews recite V’shomru on a Friday night, a big “yerid” - fair of angels assemble in the heavenly realms.” Out of respect for his colleague he inserted the passage. But since he maintained that there was a halachic issue with reciting it, it was to be omitted. His Chassidim asked, “What about the big fair of angels?” To which he replied, “One does not need to attend every yerid.”

Fast forward 150 years. In the early 1940s, the Rebbe launched the idea of gathering Jewish children for a march and an assembly on various occasions. This evolved into the iconic Lag B’omer parades that are held all over the world. At one of the first gatherings outside of 770 Eastern Parkway, the Rebbe was addressing the children. His father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe was proudly watching from his second story window. He commented to an aide who was standing nearby by sharing the above story and concluded by indicating that this assembly outside was one “yerid” that the Alter Rebbe was certainly attending.

The Lag B’omer parade was a phenomenon that was possible only because of the freedoms that the USA afforded to all including Jews. Coming from the oppressive Soviet regime, this was an opportunity that the Rebbe seized with enthusiasm. There were also many new ideas and attractions competing for the attention of Jewish children and Jewish people in general. Therefore it was necessary to place a bold public emphasis on the celebration of being Jewish and the pride in living Jewish.

Here is a personal Lag B’omer parade memory that I shared a few years ago -

Children watch a sports team parade after a championship victory or a Thanksgiving or Mardi Gras parade celebrating this idea or another. Now, all of a sudden, they can participate in a parade that celebrates Judaism. A Judaism that they are being told by society is archaic and irrelevant. The positive feeling that this experience provides for the child is immeasurable. Since the first parades in the 1940s, the Lag B’omer parade has grown and developed into a global brand experienced by hundreds of thousands of children around the world.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Good for all, good for one!

One of the classic sociological conundrums is the tension between the value score of the individual contrasted with that of the collective.  (See here for an interesting take on this issue within Judaism

Early on in history societies ignored the tension entirely. All that mattered was either the ruling class or the group with the greater warriors. Later as humanity began to become more sophisticated, they either struggled to identify and articulate what their particular doctrine was in this area, or they implemented a flawed philosophy where one suffers at the expense of the other. There is the doctrine that believes that everything must be sacrificed for the good of the collective (state). There is the doctrine that believes that individual liberties or rights outweighs the good of the collective. There are many shades and grades of these ideas that have been tried in history.

I would like to share an insight that Judaism offers as a nuanced perspective on this tension.

In Jewish thought this tension is articulated as the balance between Klal Yisrael (the collective Jewish people) or Tizbur (the community) and the yachid (individual Jew). When it comes to value scoring, we do not always accept that an individual’s good must be sacrificed for the good of Klal Yisrael. For example, if a group of Jews had their lives under threat and the enemy said give us one random Jew to kill or else we will come and kill you all, we don’t give up one for the sake of saving the many. On the other hand Jews are adjured to care for and value the good of the Klal even at the expense of their own detriment. There is a concept of Tircha Dztzibura – a person is expected to inconvenience himself so as not to cause trouble to the community.

In an essay the Rebbe posits, that a Jewish person should see his work on behalf of the Klal (even at the expense of his personal gain) as personally beneficial. Why, because Klal Yisrael is made up of many individual Jews. It is not an entity that is separate from the people included within it. True the Klal is greater than the sum of the parts. But it still consists of the parts. As such, that which is good for the Klal is actually good for me (even if it appears to come at a personal expense). Because I am part of the Klal, when Klal Yisrael benefits so do I.

Obviously this brief explanation is an over-simplification of a complex idea and there are certainly degrees and even exceptions to the rule. Also, this nuance requires the Klal to be administered by people (such as the Sanhedrin, a prophet or spiritual leader) who will not manipulate this improperly for their own gain. But by and large it gives us a fresh outlook on the responsibilities of the individual to the Klal, while maintaining the value score of the individual.

I would like to relate this to a practical application in our community – the daily minyan. In truth, a minyan is necessary for each individual to be able to properly pray every day. But even if a person doesn’t (currently for whatever reason) value score the minyan very highly on their personal scale of priorities, still the minyan is a vital part of a successful Jewish community. As a part of that community, I personally benefit from that success as well. (Similar to the idea of citizens benefitting from a good educational system even if they do not have children.) So therefore, even when I don’t want to trouble myself to attend the minyan, I acknowledge that it is for my personal good to do so because it is a value to community.

In this vein, we are going to be working over the next few weeks to boost the daily morning minyan. You may be getting a call or an email about this. Please consider the above articulated idea when determining your level of commitment.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


Grandparents getting younger

As some of you may know, Malkie and I had the delightful honor of becoming grandparents over Passover. Our daughter Mushka and her husband Yossi Cohen are the proud parents of a baby boy named Schneur Zalman. I know you think we are too young to be grandparents (my younger kids are engaged in a regular mission to identify gray hairs in my beard)… but that is the reality and Baruch Hashem for that. This baby is also the first great-grandchild for my parents and in-laws.

We were talking shortly after the baby was born about praying on our children’s behalf; and how that now continues on to the next generation of our grandchildren. When I was a teenager, I became aware that my maternal grandfather R’ Sholom Gordon OBM, would recite the chapter of Psalms corresponding to the age of each of his descendants. I knew about a custom to recite the Psalm corresponding to one’s own age. I also knew that Chassidim recited the Rebbe’s chapter. But this was something comforting; to know that my grandfather recited a chapter on my (and my many relatives’) behalf.

When I got married, I added my spouse’s chapter in addition to my own. As each child was born, I added their chapter to the list. In fact, often, the first thing I did at the birth of a child, was welcome them to the world with the first chapter of Psalms. When my daughter got married there was another chapter added for her spouse. And now for our grandson. As each chapter is recited, it is an opportunity to think, if but for a moment, about that person and their welfare.

Malkie mentioned to me that she did this when reciting the morning prayer/blessing about Torah study. We say “May we and our offspring, and the offspring of all of Your nation the house of Israel, all know Your name and study Your Torah.” She takes a moment to think of each of her offspring, including now the grandchild.

As a Kohen, during the priestly blessing which is recited on each festival day, I utilize the time to concentrate on each member of my family, in addition to the general blessing of the congregation and the Jewish people as a whole.

These are all our personal ways of making spiritual connections with our children and grandchildren. I share these with you only to encourage each of you to develop personal ways to forge those connections as well. It is meaningful and beneficial for the children as well as ourselves.

May we each be blessed by Hashem with an abundance of nachas from our families in good health and with plentiful resources to provide for them with dignity.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Heroics Are For Regular Folks Too

Most people don’t aspire to become heroes. Most people are content living normal, yet meaningful lives that touch and brighten the lives of others. Those people wake up each morning anticipating that the rhythm of their lives will pretty much be predictable. They expect to go through their routines, accomplish wonderful things and go to sleep at night knowing that their day has made a difference in their corner of the world. For most of them and for most of their lives, that is actually the case. Then there are those moments when regular wonderful people are faced with extraordinary circumstances. That is when normal regular people discover reservoirs of strength and heroism that they never knew they had and never hoped they would need.

Last week during the attack at Chabad of Poway, a “regular” Chabad Rabbi rose to the occasion in an extraordinary manner. Rabbi Yisrael Goldstein came to Shul on the last day of Pesach uplifted and inspired by the specialness of the day. By his own admission, the last day of Pesach was always distinct for him. It represented the aura of Redemption as indicated by the special Haftarah from Isaiah that speaks of Moshiach and the era of Redemption. He was looking forward to being inspired by the reading, and in turn inspiring his congregation as they got ready for Yizkor. He stepped out of the sanctuary to wash his hands when he heard gunshots and saw the face of evil. A young man with a firearm had just gunned down a prominent member of the Shul, Lori Kaye, and was pointing the weapon at him.

As Rabbi Goldstein put it, “I kicked into Rebbe mode.” Instead of running to protect his own life and wellbeing he sought to protect others. He along with several others in the Shul led children to safety at their own peril, while others confronted the attacker causing him to flee. With his finger dangling from being blown to pieces, he stood on a chair outside the Shul where congregants huddled in uncertainty and offered thundering words of comfort and empowerment.

After finally allowing himself to be taken for medical treatment and learning of the loss of his finger, he continued to encourage and inspire and speak out with a positive, uplifting and empowering message. Since then it has been a whirlwind of conveying this powerful message to the world through the media and various very public stages and appearances during which he has been a force for good. When asked by one of the anchormen where he got the strength to do this, he pointed to the Rebbe’s picture and he said “this is what the Rebbe taught and empowered us to do.”  

Does that mean that the harrowing experience was not real for him? Does that mean that he doesn’t take serious the crippling loss of a very close family friend and congregant? Of course not! But heroes step up in the moment.

Rabbi Goldstein’s message echoes the Rebbe’s call that, “In the face of this deep darkness we must be beacons of light.” Now we must act heroically. Ladies! Light your Shabbat candles in memory of Lori Kaye. Men, put on Tefillin for the recovery of the wounded. All of us! Let’s come to Shul this Shabbat (and every Shabbat) in solidarity with Poway. This will show the world that Am Yisrael Chai and we will not be cowed into suppressing our Yiddishkeit. We will live as proud Jews. This light will intimidate the forces of darkness into total evaporation, proving that they were but a passing shadow.

See you in Shul! May it be a Shabbat Shalom – a Sabbath of Peace
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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